I’m Sarah Hiner, and I fear I may be a digital addict.
I’ve been doing research for a podcast with antismoking and digital-addiction advocate Dr. Alan Blum, and I’m afraid to say it, but I think I may be a digital addict. I don’t think I have gone off the deep end, but I do think I have some signs and symptoms.
I’ve actually been wondering about this for a while, since I have observed some troubling behavior to which I will now confess…think of your own behavior as you read these.
- I check my phone as soon as I wake up, before I am even out of bed. My rationale: I tell myself that I need to be sure that there were no emergencies while I was asleep. So I turn off airplane mode and check for any texts from elderly parents and faraway children. Truth: Even when I haven’t received any texts or calls, I proceed to check my e-mail and favorite news sites. I just keep scrolling, even though I feel my agitation grow with every swipe. It’s like the compulsion to look at a traffic accident—you know you don’t need to do it, but you do it anyway.
- I frequently take mental breaks from work that requires concentration, such as writing this blog, by checking e-mail…news headlines…and social media. While I have always mulled things over in my mind when I am writing something, I worry that the constant barrage of messaging and interruptions have rewired my brain and are inhibiting my ability to sit quietly and concentrate for extended periods.
- I check my phone constantly in meetings. I may be checking my schedule for upcoming meetings that day…I may be checking e-mails…or it may be that a text was received in my family group (and as a mom, I have a hypersensitive thrill when I hear from any of them).
- My daughters have challenged me to put away the phone at the dinner table. I am not a mealtime scroller, but I often keep my phone around to look up the answer to a question or a detail on a subject that we are discussing at the table. In many ways, this is one of the values of smartphones—you can learn about anything anytime. But if I am being totally transparent, I can admit that I get a chemical “hit” when I can take a look at my phone and get an immediate answer. No waiting. No forgetting. No having to remember to look up something later on. Ding! Problem solved.
- I get a Pavlovian response every time my phone buzzes or dings, indicating that there is a text. No, I don’t salivate, but I can feel my pulse race a tad and a shot of Oh wow, what’s that? runs through my body, somewhat like when the mailman arrives with a package at the holidays.
There are other aspects of digital addiction that I don’t believe relate to me…but they are definitely big factors in digital addiction. In particular, there are the social pressures and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)…and the associated skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression among teens in particular as they compare their “dull lives” to the perceived perfection in their friends’ and peers’ posted pictures.
As the experts have proved through digital imaging, I do feel that each buzz, ding and headline change on news sites stimulates my brain. I also believe that rapid-fire messaging, combined with the pressures of juggling a hectic business and home life, and/or the rapid rate of digital information that we receive has rewired my brain. I used to have the patience to focus on spreadsheets for hours. Now I process quickly and move along, often knowing that there are other items swirling in the back of my mind that are lining up for attention.
I share all of the above, because I’m sure I’m not alone. And I would bet my daughter’s Apple Watch that many of you are experiencing the same things but don’t want to acknowledge or change it. I’ve wasted way too many hours scrolling when I am too tired to work…it is too early to go to bed…I don’t want to watch TV…and I don’t want to start some household project. So instead I scroll, rationalizing that I am keeping an eye on what my friends are up to or may see some interesting article or inspirational saying.
Digital addiction is incredibly complicated. Experts don’t yet agree on a definition or a diagnosis, let alone the root cause. I searched…and searched…and searched.
Causes of digital addiction include early exposure to dopamine-inducing stimuli of lights, bells and dings. Tablets and smartphones developed for infants and toddlers provide them with extreme stimulation at a very early age.
Parents are using screens as babysitters, placing toddlers and babies in front of phones and tablets rather than interacting with them or teaching them to enjoy a quieter, slower, “greener” way of life. Last week, I watched a lovely young family out to lunch. Mom, Dad and two kids…and an infant and a three-year-old child. Mom had the infant on her lap, and the three-year-old had a tablet set up in front of him to entertain him at the table. No talking. No crayons. No thumb wrestling. Here’s your screen. Enjoy.
The babysitting screen is a double-whammy for kids—not only are their brains being rewired by the lights and noises, but children are missing out on human touch and connection…and the intimacy of looking in someone’s eyes…and the oxytocin released by human touch that helps develop feelings of trust and connection.
Teenagers have similarly traded human interaction for virtual interaction, thinking that a selfie through Snapchat or 200 likes on a new Insta post is the same as developing a relationship. They spend their lives benchmarking themselves against their peer groups—is my outfit cute enough? My trip exciting enough? How many likes did I get on that last post? And as a result, 18-to-24-year-olds have the highest rate of depression of any other age group.
Even though our generation was not raised on screens, I see plenty of adults whose brains have been primed in dopamine baths, as they search for the latest photo of a child or grandchild to share or they aim for a higher score on Candy Crush. And as I mentioned above, there’s a whole lot of time being spent in search of something of interest.
Don’t get me wrong, the Internet and the digital age have provided many benefits for people of all ages, including its ability to keep people connected across the miles. I love being back “in touch” with childhood friends, and I know a number of young people with long-distance relationships for whom Snapchat, FaceTime and texting have allowed a continuous connection in between the times of human touch and deeper conversation. I have never been a game player, but I did enjoy playing Scrabble with an elderly aunt who lives 800 miles—a little touch across the miles.
The problem is, there really can be too much of a good thing…even drinking water…even eating broccoli. And there’s no doubt that our society is suffering from too much of a good thing.
Dr. Shainna Ali posted a column in Pyschology Today that posed questions to consider for your own digital addiction. I share them with you here…
- Have you noticed an increase in how often you use your device?
- Have you felt guilty about how often you use your device?
- Do you experience an urge to use your device?
- When you are using your device, do you experience a lift in your mood?
- When you are using your device, do you experience a thrill?
- When unable to use your device, do you experience discomfort?
- Have you noticed times in which it seems as though time was lost while you were in the zone using your device?
- Do you use your device to brighten your mood?
- Have you tried to reduce the amount of time that you use your device?
- If so, were you successful in reducing your amount?
- Have your loved ones complained about your use?
- If yes, have you continued your usage rate regardless of their complaints?
Do the questions above ring true for you? Do any of you also check your phone before getting out of bed? And keep it at your side at every meal and meeting? You don’t have to tell me…but consider it yourself. Consider it for your family. Consider it for the future of our society.