When is technology too much? Photo: Deposit Photos

25 Apr Tech Addiction Doesn’t Only Affect Kids

By Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Doctorate in Psychology

The scene is a familiar one: A family is gathered at the table, enjoying a meal and each other. Grandparents ask the grandchildren about their latest play or baseball game; children ask their parents if they can spend the night at a friends’ house.

The conversation dies down, and someone says, “Did you see that new meme? The one with the goats?” or, “I saw the trailer for that new movie last night. Have you seen it? It looks incredible,” or, “I heard this new song today. I just can’t remember the name of the artist. Let me look it up.”

And then, it happens. Someone, or more, pulls out their phone and begins the search for the meme, the trailer, or the answer to the question. And then, it’s over. The togetherness, unhampered by technology, has passed. One by one, another phone comes out until each place setting is decorated with its own device.

Within the space of a few moments, we can experience the highs and lows of all that technology offers us. We’re able to have a rare ingredient or tool delivered to our door, talk in real time with video to our family and friends in far-flung places, and play a game with our grandkids who live a state way.

But at the same time, we have strong feelings about how phone calls have turned almost exclusively to text messages and how keeping up with the many platforms we’ve invested in becomes a challenge. Technology is wonderful and horrible, and it’s here to stay. Even though there are innumerable ways in which our lives are enhanced and enriched by it, it’s still clear that there are some ways in which it’s shaping us that we’d do well to pay attention to.

Spending 10-plus hours a day with technology, as most Americans now do, can have a profound impact on our functioning. Just as the contextual elements surrounding a growing tree affect its growth and health, so do the technological and digital realities of our daily life create a context that shapes us.

If a tree grows within the context of too little light or water or in the presence of constant coastal winds, its mature presence will reflect these realities. It may appear bent over as a result of exposure to wind or may lack the heartiness and color that result from enough light and water. The same is true with technology. Our brains, bodies, and relational and mental wellness (or lack thereof) reflect the realities of our technology engagement and exposure.

Although many people are able to navigate their engagement with devices and the digital domains they deliver without becoming dependent, many can’t. The reality that a majority of our communication, entertainment, and information gathering is done in online spaces makes it such that dependence and, sometimes, behavior patterns that look like addition are very real.

Even though the World Health Organization has classified video gaming addiction as a diagnostic category, our diagnostic nomenclature in America does not offer any formal way of recognizing addictions related to device use. But this doesn’t mean that dependence and addictive symptoms related to the excessive use of technology don’t exist.

If individuals find themselves needing successively more exposure to a device or platform over time in order to experience the same level of pleasure derived from less use earlier on; are overly irritable when separated from their device; or obsessively focused on what is occurring in digital spaces when not in them, it’s likely that a level of unhealthy dependence has set in.

Although it’s much easier to keep our device use in check when we’ve set intentional norms around our use, most of us have habituated to large amounts of screen time without really thinking about it. We used to leave our phones in our purses while we drive, but now, we have them out on the seat next to us. We never brought them into our rooms at night, but now, we read on them to fall asleep. We used to do the crossword puzzle in the paper, but now, we have 10 games of Words with Friends going at all times.

Dependence is real, and for some, addiction could become an issue. It’s important that we tell ourselves the truth about our own use, break any bad habits, and create some new norms to keep our technology engagement moderate. It’s easy to point to our kids’ or grandkids’ use as excessive and disruptive, but it’s far less easy to consider the ways that we, ourselves, end up being the first to pull out a device.

Here are some starting points to get you started in moderating your technology use…

1. Take consistent technology breaks. Decide a strategy and stick with it.

Would it be most helpful for you to take a weekly break for a day or a daily break for an hour or two?

Think about the periods within the week or the day in which you unintentionally sink excess time into technology engagement. Consider setting some limits, along with a reminder (such as a timer), on mindless scrolling, playing, and responding.

Find a way to do this consistently for at least a week and note any differences in mood, focus, and ability to delay gratification.

2. Maintain your flexibility about how you communicate, are entertained, and find information.

It’s easy to seek out brain stimulation activities online and read books on tablets. Some of the time, it’s important for our brains and bodies to do these things on paper. Our screens serve to keep us overstimulated and encourage task switching—a fancy word for multitasking.

This is taxing on our systems and can leave us dysregulated emotionally and physically. At least some of the time, make a phone call instead of texting, go to the store instead of ordering online, see a movie in a theater, and go to a library for research rather than relying on Google.

3. Focus on quality over quantity.

Rather than watching hours of random YouTube videos, select digital content that is slow moving (not a rapid succession of visual shots with loud music), that teaches a skill or idea, or that has a high-production value.

Feeding yourself a full diet of overly fast-moving content—content that is overstimulating in sound or visuals—and poorly produced content is akin to the tried-and-true “garbage in; garbage out” philosophy. What we consume matters in terms of our digital engagement. Make sure the majority of what you watch, listen to, and play isn’t filled with advertising, violence, harmful or hateful speech, or too sexualized.

4. Consider dependence more than time spent. It’s easy to fall into a rut of gauging our reliance upon our devices based on the amount of time we spend with them. Instead, it’s important to think globally.

Does your device allow you to avoid awkward moments? Do you rely on your device rather than on your own memory? Are you able to make your way to a location without Google Maps or eat out without reading several Yelp reviews?

Time is simply one domain to consider. Look at the issue globally and identify some areas that you could begin practicing without your phone.

5. Keep your embodied life fiery and interesting. Make sure you’re engaged with issues that you feel passionate about, are part of a community, and have pleasurable hobbies and activities to engage in.

Find some new and somewhat stretching experiences to try or find a new recipe to make. Our bodies were meant to be lived in.

The digital spaces we retreat to can be fun, but let’s not let it take over.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D, author of DEVICED: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World (October 2018, Rowman & Littlefield)

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