In the ’90s, pioneering New York psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg jokingly published the first description of what he called “Internet Addiction Disorder.” The symptoms, which he described as staying online longer than you expected and finding it hard to resist the urge to log in, may have seemed bizarre at the time, but today, mental health professionals have acknowledged that tech addiction is real and widespread – specifically when it comes to our smartphones.
Just take a look around the next time you’re in public. People are so focused on their devices that they lose sight of the world around them. Like other addictions, it can be difficult for someone who is addicted to identify that they have a problem.
So, how do you tell if you’re spending too much time with your screen?
Psychiatrist Greg Mahr, interim division head of Consultation Liaison Psychiatry at Henry Ford Hospital, says an action is an addiction if it’s interfering with other parts of your life.
“It’s out of control, and you’re doing it in spite of bad consequences,” he says. “The underlying issue is usually not being properly centered in your life and not having priorities in the right place – and possibly not having enough purpose. Without these things, we easily can look for gratification elsewhere,” Mahr says.
Karen Sobel-Lojeski, a professor in the department of technology and society at Stony Brook University in New York, says technology provides that gratification in spades.
“Phones are designed to feel good in your hands,” she says. “They can almost feel perfect. If some apps feel like they’re sucking you in again and again, it’s because they are designed to do just that. Your phone buzzes when you get an email. It really doesn’t matter what it’s about. That email could be a company trying to sell a new vacuum cleaner. It plays to your feeling of being needed, being wanted, that you’re important.”
Addictive activities can mess with your mind, prompting a release of the feel-good brain chemical called dopamine. But that’s not the biggest problem. The more important bottom line is that the device – and whatever is on it – becomes too meaningful. It takes too high a priority, and that’s the most difficult thing to put into perspective, Sobel-Lojeski says.
“Knowing you’re addicted is one thing, but dealing with the issue is another. Talking to other people who also struggle can give you strength in numbers,” Mahr says. “You realize you’re not alone.”
Sobel-Lojeski recommends being responsible enough to cut off your access to technology that can break your concentration.
“If you’re working on an important document at the office, consider closing all other windows on the screen, turning off your phone and not even letting yourself have access to email so you’re not sidetracked from doing this important thing,” she says.
Setting time limits on using technology can also work, but Sobel-Lojeski says use a real alarm clock.
“Don’t have the reminder be an alarm from your phone,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re still connected to technology, and it defeats the purpose.”
If you stay committed, Sobel-Lojeski says setting goals to deal with technology can help.
“It has to be a priority for you, or you’ll likely end up back in the same old habits,” she says. “You have to want a better life and recognize changes in your use of technology can make it better.”
Quick tips for breaking tech addiction
- Leave your phone behind when possible: Ask yourself: “Do I really need to use my phone when I’m in the bathroom?”
- Engage a friend to keep you accountable: Make a pact with a good friend to call each other out if either of you are checking your phones too often.
- Turn off your phone 30 minutes before bed: Looking at your screen before bed can negatively affect your sleep.
- Try chatting in real life: Instead of catching up by text, invite a friend to lunch.