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What is Technology Addiction?

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If you are a teen, are the parent of a teen— or have been anywhere near a teen— you know the important role technology plays in the life of today’s youth. Not an hour goes by that most teens don’t swipe, click, or post. 

Recent studies show that the average teen spends 7.5 hours a day using some type of digital technology. That number jumps up to 9-11 hours a day when you factor in multi-tasking and the many screens teens find themselves in front of at the same time (scanning Instagram while watching Youtube videos, texting while playing Battle Royale, watching Netflix at the same time as doing homework…). 

In fact, 45% of teens in one study admit they are online ‘almost constantly’ and a full 9 out of 10 teens felt that spending too much time with technology is a serious problem facing their generation. 

So, is technology addiction just the latest thing for the media to panic about and adults to nag kids about, or is it really an addiction? And how worried should we be? 

What is Technology Addiction—and Is It a Real Thing? 

“Technology addiction” (also called tech addiction, Internet addiction, or Internet use disorder, among other things) is a broad term used to describe any obsessive tech-related behavior— be that gaming, Youtube, social media, online shopping, or pretty much anything else involving digital technology. 

Although “Internet gaming disorder” was classified as a mental health condition by the World Health Organization in 2018 and may soon be included by the American Psychiatric Association, the international mental and behavioral health community doesn’t yet recognize technology overuse as an official clinical addiction. 

The obsessive use of technology does, in fact, have similarities with substance abuse and other addictions, including activating the reward centers of the brain and can affect the brain’s white matter, such as disrupting neural pathways related to executive functioning. 

However, tech addiction is significantly different from drug addiction in other ways. As Dr. Matthew Cruger, a neuropsychologist and the director of the Child Mind Institute explained, “With addiction, you have a chemical that changes the way we respond that leads us to be reliant on it for our level of functioning. That’s not what‘s happening here. We don’t develop higher levels of tolerance. We don’t need more and more screen time in order to be able to function.”

More than likely, when we say we say “tech addiction” what we’re really talking about is the feeling of not being able to do without phones or a favorite game, and the negative behaviors that come when teens are made to do without them. In fact, in a recent study, half of teenagers themselves admitted they feel addicted to their mobile device, and three-quarters feel compelled to immediately respond to texts, check their likes on social media posts, or “level up” on their favorite games.

Tech addiction doesn’t have to be clinically classified as an addiction to be a serious problem; as we’ve seen, there’s a lot of scary statistics out there. Along with comparing tech addiction to “digital cocaine”, others have linked increased screen time to the shocking increase in adolescent anxiety, ADHD, depression, and the rise in suicide

Clearly, there’s a problem. 

So What Can We Do?

On an individual basis, what it really comes down to is if the technology is interfering negatively with daily life. Have your grades or friendships suffered? Do you sleep less, or have you lost or gained weight? Do you find yourself sneaking or denying there is a problem? Does being without a phone or wi-fi cause irritability or panic? All of these are signs that the use of technology may be getting out of control.

If you want to cut the cord (or at least lengthen it), here are five tips to help you break your tech addiction: 

Get Real

“Hi, I’m Ryan, and I’m a Tech Addict”

One of the first signs that technology is a problem is denying it is one. So first of all, take a brutally-honest inventory of your technology habits. If you’re a gamer, set a timer and keep a journal of how often and how long you play. 

Tracking phone usage is easy; for iPhones simply use the Screen Time app, included with the phone. Screen Time gives you a detailed view of the time you’ve spent, and what apps and websites you’ve spent it on, see how many times a device was picked up, and other details of your smartphone usage. There are lots of other tools, phone apps, and browser extensions out there to help you track and get realistic about your technology use, so you can have the information you need to manage it. 

Start Small

Once you are aware of your average daily technology use, you can start thinking about how to reduce it. Start small, such as taking a break during meal times, or reducing your tech use by one hour per week. You can set limits through the Screen Time app or whatever app/tool you choose to use. You can set alarms and notifications to remind you and keep you honest. 

Better yet, talk a buddy into doing this digital detox with you. The buddy system has proven very effective in weight loss and other addictions; why not try it with beating your gaming or screen time dependency? 

Make a Plan

Don’t rely on willpower alone. You’ll be going against the world’s smartest minds and high-tech giants fighting for your attention. Instead, own-up to being out-matched and make a plan. 

Create a routine that adds other things into your schedule. For example, when you wake up, get a glass of water, open the windows, stretch, look at the sun and sky (corny as it sounds)–before you check your phone. When you come home from school or work, take the dog out, make a sandwich–whatever you decide, pick a few tasks to do before logging in to your gaming account. 

Get Out

Building some technology-free diversions into the day can help. Get outside, join a club, audition for a play, volunteer at an animal shelter or local food bank, learn to play guitar or work with pottery. Anything that (1) occupies your time in a constructive way, and (2) uses NO technology is acceptable. Reward yourself for making the effort with something you enjoy such as a food, treat, or hot bath. 

Know When to Get Help

Sometimes even with tools and a plan and the best intentions, tech addiction is too much of a challenge to conquer alone. Often, a serious addiction to technology is a symptom of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, such as depressionlow self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, or unresolved trauma. If struggles with excessive gaming, smartphone use, or social media addiction are affecting you or your child’s health, sleep, school performance, home or social life, maybe it’s time to talk to a professional. 

At Potomac Programs we have specialists who can help anyone struggling to find balance and put technology back in its proper place. We address the underlying issues, teach positive coping skills, and give you the tools and confidence you need to conquer your dependency once and for all. You can get your life back on track, and learn to treat yourself better