The Digital Drug

Part 1 – Technology: The Addiction

I was raised on a farm in the Irish countryside, where spending time outdoors wasn’t so much of an after-school privilege as it was an expectation. My parents had the mindset that if we had time to be sitting in front of the TV then we had time to do yard work, a mentality that neither myself nor my brother quite appreciated at the time but one which I’ve grown to admire for in more recent years.

Now don’t get me wrong, in spite of their aversion to us being inside “on a day like today” (picture rain, lots of it!), we were given our allotted technology time. The problem with that though was that, with a strict ban on video games and a dial up speed that would rival an iceberg, it often took longer for us to start the computer than we actually had in said allotted tech time.

And yet despite this significant lack of technological infrastructure in our home I was still informed by my parents regularly that I was “addicted to that bloody thing”. Whether it was Sims on the family PC or Pokémon on the Gameboy Colour (bougie I know), my parents never discriminated. If it was technology I was ‘addicted’. And my ‘addiction’ apparently didn’t stop with my growth spurts. In this past year alone they’ve accused me of being hooked on Instagram, Facebook and Netflix… Crazy, right???

Okay so I’ll admit to the Netflix one, but honestly, I’ve lived my whole life believing that my parents were technophobes and that they were just imagining things.

That was until I updated my iPhone software. iOS 12. It started like so many other updates, insignificant and inconsequential, but by the time Sunday evening rolled around and I received my first ever ‘Screen Time Report’ notification, the update no longer seemed so trivial. I was not prepared for the number on the screen and I was honestly more ashamed of this report than any school report I’ve ever received. In fact, when I saw the number of hours (plural) I spent on each social media app every day I began googling how they calculate those hours because it MUST have been a mistake. I was in total denial.

What was even worse though was the next week’s Sunday evening notification that my average screen time was up by 20 something percent. How could that be? I had tried so hard to be so conscientious about my app usage. And so, started the yoyo screen time dieting. One week screen time was down a few percent, the next week back up again. The Sunday evening weight watchers style check-ins were killing me. I was getting close to hitting my rock bottom, so I did what any good millennial would do when faced with a crisis. I turned off the notifications.  I was happy in my ignorance until the other day, when our beloved Instagram went down for a couple of hours.

Insta-gate … The day the internet freaked out and took to twitter to let everyone know just how ‘triggered’ we were by our inability to access a free to use, photo sharing app!!

I personally had been at a conference all day and so hadn’t even noticed that the app was down, but the whole freak-out got me thinking again about my screen time and how accustomed we have become to having uninterrupted access to these apps at all times. Were we addicted to Instagram?

According to Psychology Today the most recent update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published in 2013, expanded the definition of what constitutes addiction to include behavioural addictions like gambling. And while technology addictions were not specifically included in the list, the manual did specify nine criteria for dependence, including “craving a given item, habit, or substance; use of that item resulting in a failure to complete major tasks (like work), and use of that item creating hazards (like, say, checking your phone while driving).”

Use or Abuse?

One of the problems with diagnosing this addiction is that it is often hard to decipher what a normal level of technology use is. As technology has evolved so too has our tolerance for what is socially accepted behaviour. It wasn’t long ago that the landline would ring during dinner time and it would go unanswered because it was rude for anyone to think about calling during a designated family time. Nowadays we text, tweet and swipe our way though meals. And while, to some, this behaviour might be seen as rude and antisocial, the behaviour itself does not necessarily constitute an addiction. The problems arise when, if asked to, you cannot go a single dinner without checking your phone. This is the difference between a problematic use of technology and a dependence on it.

Jessica Wong, a state-certified prevention professional at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Saint Paul, Minnesota, says that “about 1 in 8 people have problematic use of technology, they’re making less than healthy choices but they are not dependent. About 1 in ten have progressed to a level of dependence.”

Dependence on digital devices can have serious negative effects on our health and wellbeing outside of us just neglecting one small responsibilities. A 2010 study in the Journal of Psychopathy found a direct link between heavy internet use and depression and Psychology Today found that excessive screen time could damage brain function, and even just holding your smartphone can make it harder to think. In addition, a study by the National Eye institute linked an exponential increase in myopia (nearsightedness) in the US to increased screen time, while a report by NPR in 2017 claimed that the 11% increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities was due to an increase in distracted driving and texting while walking.

What’s more is the impact that technology is having on the development of communication skills in children. Experts fear that as children replace face to face interactions with digital ones we could irreparably damage the communication skills for generations to come. Combining this with the fact that technology skills will soon be commoditised in the workplace, and emotional intelligence will be the number one thing that employers look for, paints a dark picture for those of us that don’t know how to unplug.

Course Correction

Technology is not leaving our lives anytime soon and the benefits from being connected to the digital world definitely outweigh the drawbacks, however there is a point at which technology tips from being something that enhances our lives to something that dictates it. Taking back control of our lives is about moderation and it starts with putting the phone down. The following tips and tricks have helped me to spend less time online and have helped me to reduce that pesky screen time number.

Turn off your notifications – The screen time app shows you the number of notifications that you receive in a day and the average in an hour. Notifications are so distracting and are the primary reason that I pick up my phone. Turning them off (and only leaving on the most important ones) had an amazing impact on the number of times I picked up my phone in a day.

Set App Time Limits – Setting app limits lets you know when you’ve reached you allotted app time each day and can be seriously effective in keeping your Instagram hours in check.

Put the phone down – in another room preferably. Do you ever find yourself mindlessly scrolling through twitter while watching Netflix? I do this the whole time and honestly, it’s a total waste of time on so many levels. Leaving your phone in another room (on silent!) is great for cutting your dependence on it. The first few times you do it you might have that anxious, uneasy feeling but I promise it’s worth it and it’s a really great habit to get into.

Look out for Part Two of the Digital Drug Series, Technology: The Therapy, where I’ll be taking a look at some of the ways in which technology is being used to rewire our brains for the better.

11 comments

  1. I loved this post, especially after the recent news that the UK is thinking about taxing social media companies and using the funds to better research the impact social media has on children. It’s something that I’ve struggled with as well. In college, my friends and I would place a block on our computers, which would keep us from accessing social media (or anything that contributes to procrastination) for a certain amount of time while we were studying. In business school, I’ve tried to get into the habit of leaving my phone in another room, or putting it on Do Not Disturb while I’m attempting to do work. It’s a little sad that it’s come to that.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in the future – doctors recommend little to no screen time for children, and many parents don’t let their young kids watch TV at all. Will this begin applying to phones and tablets as well? So many parents use tablets and phones to distract their kids, so there’s a potential new market for children’s toys, if they can capitalize on this trend.

    Your tips for reducing phone usage are great – I’m going to try some of these out this week, and will be reporting.

  2. The recent addition of screen time monitoring has been a great source of information. I have found the best thing for me is the Do Not Disturb function. Although at times this annoys my friends and family, it is quite effect at limiting the amount of times I pick up my phone. On the subject of addition, I found the Baylor University 2015 study very interesting. They found evidence of the smartphone’s effect on the brain to be similar to the effect of drugs. With this a possibility for some, I think we will have to be smart about the usage concerning young children as their minds develop.

  3. Really interesting and engaging post. I actually had a conscious realization of my own phone usage a while back and just deleted a lot of the apps I was using too often (Snapchat and Google News at that time). After not being on social media for a while you can definitely notice a difference in someone who is checking it quite often. It seems weird and almost foreign to me at this point.

    How did your digital detox go? Have you been able to successfully reduce your screen time?

  4. Do you think there’s a difference between wasting time on your phone and using your phone as a conduit to productive behavior? For example, if I make an effort to spend 50% less time on Twitter and 50% more time on the WSJ app, is this a net benefit? (This has been exactly my goal for the last 2 months.) I guess it depends on how likely I am to be distracted by the myriad other things my phone does that a newspaper cannot do.

  5. I didn’t have a laptop until I got to college. And we didn’t have a family computer until I was halfway through high school. So prior to this if I wanted to use the internet I’d have to walk to my grandmother’s house. And through this my mom still found a way to blame technology for about everything. To this day if I have a headache or a stomachache or if I breath too loudly, she insists it’s because I’m “on that damn phone too much.” She’s the nurse so I don’t question that medical opinion. Do I think I am addicted? No. (said every addict ever). However, I certainly make too much time for technology and enjoy it way too much. I actually have not updated my phone yet for fear of what that number will say. Friends that I know use their phone less than me have some pretty shocking numbers. Should I get the update? Yes. Will I? Ask me later. Great blog post!

  6. Great post. We’ll read an article explicitly on this (or close) in coming weeks. While AB testing is a really helpful process for the developers, it can really make the products addictive for the users. I generally agree with (and practice) the tips you recommend.

  7. I somehow didn’t realize that all of Instagram was down the other day until a friend let me know. My phone glitches out on apps sometimes and I just figured that there was something wrong with my app or phone and didn’t think to check Twitter. One of my friends started complaining about how boring it was not to be able to look at meme’s all day and I felt weirdly disconnected because I usually spend all day scrolling. While I’m guilty, I do think it’s sad that in any awkward or dull situation most people first instinct is to pick up their phone whether it be out of habit or comfort. This is something I’ve tried to notice more in my day to day life to be more in the moment with the people I’m spending time with. I loved your blog and will definitely dig deeper into your suggestions and my own screen time app data because I too, try to turn a blind eye to it!

  8. What a great and relevant article! Honestly, I think our generation is the lucky one because we weren’t all born with technology in our hands (although some of us may not remember when the internet first came out). But honestly it’s crazy how real the addiction is and how apparent it is in today’s youth. My niece when she was only one and a half last year, was actually navigating her way through YouTube to find whatever videos she wanted to watch, solely using the suggestions sidebar. Crazier yet, when you covered the screen or tried to lower the volume of baby shark after hearing it for the millionth time, she would go into an absolute fit! I think my niece revealed to me the addiction we all have to technology now, on the most primitive level. Our use, and/or abuse of technology has led to an addiction and it’s no surprise that studies show tech as detrimental to health. At this point, I’m very glad I stuck to the saying “Everything is good in moderation”, otherwise I’m sure I would be a total tech junkie!

  9. Loved this post! When it comes to tech addiction, I always think about the fact that it wasn’t too long ago that smoking cigarettes all day was not considered a problem…there is always a lag in us realizing the damaging effects of the things we love so much, and by the time we do realize, many of us are already hooked. When Screen Time came out, I was actually proud to realize that my social media time was significantly lower than a lot of my friends. But what freaks me out is that sometimes I find that I’ll open Instagram, scroll through for a few seconds, close it, then open it again just a few seconds or minutes later without thinking to start scrolling and realize I’ve just seen all of these posts. Or I’ll open my phone to set an alarm or type a note, and my fingers will instinctively open Instagram, making me completely forget what I originally opened my phone to do. And I am someone with a relatively low addiction according to Screen Time — that’s scary! The worst part is, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, etc know how to use our natural tendency towards addiction to rope us in even more…enter the Instagram Explore Page. True evil genius. I wish I could see a breakdown of how average time spent on the app changed after the introduction of the Explore page, and how much of people’s time spent on the app now is spent specifically on the Explore page. Not to mention the Explore page is the source of some of the most damaging mental health effects of social media (i.e. comparing you life, body, friends, money to people you don’t even know). I wish there was a feature like the app time limits just for the Explore page.

  10. Also couldn’t resist posting this….

  11. Couldn’t agree more with all of this. Scrolling through the gram while watching Netflix, guilty. Tons of screen time, guilty. And like Jim said above, we try can try to trade out time…like more WSJ and less Instagram, but ultimately I think we can all admit we will wind up on Insta. I think the real issue is we are no longer know what to do with idle time. Stop at a red light, check twitter, have 2 minutes in line, check Instagram, have 30 seconds here…check this app. I also like leaving my phone in another room to reduce the number of involuntary pickups and allow myself to enjoy what’s going on around me.

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