Bill Gates didn’t let his children have cell phones until they were teenagers. Steve Jobs famously didn’t let his kids use iPads or iPhones. And former Wired magazine editor and tech entrepreneur Chris Anderson, who is also a father of five, set parental controls and time limits on all the screens and gadgets his kids used.
Why would these tech titans stop their children from using the products they helped create and promote? Because they knew the grim truth: Technology addiction is a very real problem. Not only are innovations such as smartphones, social media, and the internet addictive by their very nature, but they’re also specifically engineered to take advantage of human vulnerabilities and our hardwired basic needs. These tech pros, who also were parents, knew that—as with any addiction—there are serious consequences of being dependent on devices, including risks from disrupted sleep to depression. And of course, it’s not just the youngest users who need to be protected from these pitfalls. It’s all of us.
In this article, you’ll learn the symptoms of technology addiction along with the science behind it. If you’re hooked more than you’d like to be, make sure to read all the way to the end for seven ways to reduce your use … and then promptly turn off your computer or phone and head out for a hike or other tech-free adventure.
Do you need help stepping away from your smartphone? Check out this article for more information on technology addiction, and get seven tips on how to cut back on your screen time. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser
These Five Short Stats Are Worth a Long Look
Before I do a deep dive into what technology addiction looks like, let these facts on screen time sink in:
- Americans now look at their smartphones an average of 52 times a day, more often than ever before. (1)
- We can’t even put them down on vacation. In fact, a 2018 poll found that we actually check our phones more while enjoying some R&R: roughly 80 times per day. (2)
- Researchers found that college students spend nearly nine hours daily on their phones, texting, gaming, scrolling through social media, etc. (3)
- We check work email at home constantly, from the bed, dinner table, and bathroom, even looking at our inbox during face-to-face conversations. (4)
- By age 21, the average gamer will have logged 10,000 hours of playing time. (5, 6)
It’s clear that we have a problem. But are we addicted?
The Basis of Addiction—and What the Science Says about Tech
While the concept of addiction has historically been associated with substance abuse, behavioral addictions like gambling and now technology are becoming increasingly widespread and recognized. Though tech addiction isn’t currently in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.), psychologists say we’re headed in that direction, and just this year, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases. (7, 8, 9)
Every addiction, no matter its lure, pulls us out of the present moment—away from important real-world activities—and technology is no different. Each time we check our inbox or social media account, there’s a chance something will be there for us, something that reinforces an aspect of who we think we are and releases a hit of that “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine. I’d need another entire article to go into it in detail, but trust me on this: tech designers pull from a deep bag of tricks to trigger dopamine and manipulate our brains in order to maximize the time we spend on our devices.
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Any time the reward centers of the brain are engaged, there’s the potential for addictive behavior. Technology use activates the same regions of the brain and is fueled by the same basic human needs as drugs and alcohol: social engagement and support, mental stimulation, and a sense of effectiveness. It also shares the same key characteristics of substance-abuse disorders, meeting clinical criteria such as excessive use, tolerance, withdrawal, and negative repercussions. (10, 11)
- Several neuroimaging studies have shown that heavy gamers and internet users experience abnormal changes in brain matter similar to those with substance addictions. (12, 13)
- Nearly 80 percent of online gamers suffer a loss in at least one area of their lives as a result of excessive use, whether work, education, friendships, family, or romantic relationships. (14)
- Researchers have found that when heavy internet users go offline, they suffer withdrawal symptoms, such as dramatic mood shifts, like those experienced by drug users. (15)
How a Technology Addiction Hurts Your Health
Unfortunately, these stats are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad ways in which technology addiction can negatively impact your well-being. Although many factors can affect physical and mental health, the following outcomes could be symptoms of a dangerous tech fixation.
It May Lead to Anxiety and Depression
A large body of scientific evidence has linked tech addiction—especially smartphone dependency, problematic internet use, and gaming—with anxiety and depression. (16, 17, 18, 19) Most distressing, some studies suggest teenagers are especially prone to developing these disorders as a result of tech overuse, and that tech dependence could even be contributing to adolescent suicide rates, perhaps driven by extreme cyberbullying, public shaming, and other emotionally abusive social behaviors that have been well documented. (20, 21)
It Makes You Distracted—Really Distracted
In one systematic review of previously published research, 100 percent of included studies reported a correlation between problematic internet use and symptoms of ADHD. (22) In another, internet addiction was associated with more severe ADHD symptoms than control groups. (23) We’re living in an ADHD culture, yet the ability to ignore distractions and control where our attention is directed is crucial to health and happiness.
It Saps Your Sleep
Not only can the anxiety and depression brought on by tech addition result in sleep problems, but the artificial “blue” light emitted by computer screens and cell phones is known to suppress the production of melatonin, resulting in sleeplessness. (24)
And That’s Not All
Excessive screen time is also linked to: (25)
- Eye problems, including eyestrain and dry eye
- Hearing damage
- Musculoskeletal symptoms like “text neck”
- Injuries and accidents
I believe technology use is very likely associated with other health impacts as well, though the links aren’t as clearly established yet in the literature.
Seven Ways to Reduce Your Smartphone and Technology Use
Whether you have a full-fledged tech addiction or not, your mind and body will thank you for reducing your reliance on devices. Here are seven steps for doing just that.
Step #1: Assess Your Current Usage
Start by taking this Smartphone Compulsion Test to get an idea of where your tech habit currently stands. You can also use these two apps help you track your usage: Moment on iOS and BreakFree for Android. They track how many times you pick up your phone and how many hours you use it, and they compare those metrics with your goals. Both also have features that reduce usage. (And you may not even need to download an app. Recent updates of iOS, for instance, include a “screen time” widget that tracks nearly every aspect of your phone usage.)
Step #2: Cultivate Awareness
If we aren’t aware of our behavior, it’s impossible to change it. Consider beginning a meditation or mindfulness practice to train your attention so you’re less likely to get distracted by technology and are more able to catch yourself sooner when you do. Apps such as Headspace and Calm and wearables such as HeartMath and Muse are good options.
Step #3: Turn Off All Nonessential Notifications
Notifications are interruptions. Allowing them essentially gives your phone permission to interrupt you at any time, under any circumstance. I suggest turning off all notifications except phone calls and, if you want, text messages and calendar updates. If your work requires you to respond promptly to some emails, consider using an email app that allows you to assign VIP status to certain people so that you’ll only receive notifications from them.
Step #4: Uninstall Social Media Apps Entirely
If they aren’t on your phone, you’re far less likely to use them. Don’t worry: you can still check social media using a web browser, and uninstalling apps doesn’t have to be permanent, but it can be very helpful early on when you’re trying to reduce your usage. I also recommend “batching” your social media and email use, meaning checking your email and social accounts just two or three times daily. As a bonus, batching often provides a boost to your productivity.
Step #5: Create Phone-Free Areas in Your Home
Most importantly, never bring your phone into your bedroom. The bedroom should be for sleep and sex only, to foster good sleep hygiene. The dinner table is another important one; it’s where conversation and connection happen. As part of this step, you may want to rethink where you charge your phone. I recommend a spot near the front door or somewhere else out of sight—not your nightstand.
Step #6: Schedule a Regular Tech Time-Out
This is a period of time when you don’t interact with your phone, computer, tablets, or any screens. We do this every Sunday in our house. (Weekends are ideal if you follow a Monday–Friday work week.) It allows us to spend quality time together and makes space for reading, time in nature, and other activities. I always feel rejuvenated and refreshed afterward. If one full day sounds intimidating at first, start with half a day.
Step #7: Do Digital Detoxes
Longer than tech time-outs, digital detoxes give you the opportunity to experience yourself in the world around you unmediated by technology’s influence. I do three- to four-day digital detoxes quarterly and one or two 10-day digital detoxes per year. I look forward to these times when I can deeply relax, connect with myself and my family, and enter the mindset in which creativity and innovation occur. For more on the importance of digital detoxes and how to do them right, check out my podcast.
If you have a serious dependence on technology, I encourage you to seek help and to consider working with a health coach. Many health coaches, as well as therapists and counselors, already specialize in treating technology addictions.
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Health coaches are trained to support people as they make tough changes. Find out more about what health coaches do with this free eBook.
Know that technology dependence isn’t a personal failing. Human beings are biologically designed to seek new information and be distracted, and every app, online service, website, and so forth is geared to take advantage of this bias. The circumstances of this digital age are more conducive to addiction than any other time or place in human history.
What are your thoughts on technology addictions? Have you tried to reduce your (or your family’s) tech use in the past, or are you planning to cut down on your screen time? Tell me below in the comments!