Technology

Are we addicted to technology?

  • 31 August 2015
  • From the section Technology
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young lady asleep on laptop
Image caption Sleep problems are often a symptom of excessive screen time, experts say

Just five minutes after meeting sleep and energy expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan in her central London clinic, she delivers some bad news.

"You've got the classic pattern of someone who's in a fatigue cycle," she says.

"You're running on survival energy. Your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. I would guess you feel pretty shattered mid-afternoon which would mean you are running on adrenalin, noradrenalin, cortisol."

I'm turning into a dopamine junkie - the brain chemical associated with pleasure that is released when we are stimulated, whether that is by food, sex, excitement... or screen time.

It sounds convincing. Or am I being blinded by pseudo-science?

Dr Ramlakhan works at the privately run Nightingale Hospital, and is a member of its technology addiction treatment team.

Surely tiredness is a by-product of a busy modern life - children, work, hobbies etc - rather than that relaxing time spent watching Netflix in bed?

"The thing many of my patients have in common is the fact that they are in front of screens all the time. Even when they try to sleep at night. It has become so pervasive," she says.

Image caption Some apps like Twilight and F.lux claim to limit the blue light glare of screens in sync with the sunset

"They go to bed but can't sleep, or fall asleep exhausted and wake up tired. People started telling me they couldn't switch their brains off."

One patient was suspended from work after sending an inappropriate email to a client in the early hours of the morning, she adds.

"When we unpicked the story we realised he was spending more time at work and finding it more difficult to switch off."

He is now on the road to recovery - and hopes to return to his job.

Another recent patient was a 17-year-old who had suffered a seizure.

It turned out he was up all night playing computer games.

Multi-tasking madness

Tech-related burnout is also common in people with certain personality traits, Dr Ramlakhan continues.

"Are you a perfectionist? Are you a control freak? Do you grind your teeth at night?

"That's an A-type personality - they are driven, competitive, aggressive, run on imperatives - have to, must do, should do," she says.

"They are likely to find themselves unable to switch off, they can't relax, if they do they crash into exhaustion.

"Even if they are watching TV they have multi screens. It's a level of hyperactivity driven by a fear of not being in control."

I suggest that perhaps they just want to multi-task.

"It's the accessibility, the sensory experience of swiping that screen, the instant gratification… there is something quite pleasurable about that," she counters.

"Our generation hasn't got the hang of how to respond to it so we respond very reactively.

"For a lot of people it's the lack of offline time which causes hyper-arousal of the brain. People walk about in a state of distractibility."

Author and psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair also thinks multi-tasking - or multi-screening - is a dangerous game, especially for children.


Dr Nerina Ramlakhan's prescription

  • Have "electronic sundowns" - pull back from technology in the hour before you go to bed. Read books but not e-books
  • Keep your clock turned away from you at night and don't use your phone as an alarm clock
  • Re energise: eat breakfast - or at least something small - within 30 minutes of getting up and before drinking any caffeine
  • Start hydrating. Drink two litres of water a day at least

"We see a decrease in memory, a decline in grades, they're not developing the part of their brain that's a muscle that needs to be developed for singular focus," she told the BBC.

"It seems to decline the more people do split screening."

Old school

Image caption Guidelines recommend no more than two hours of screen time a day

The Steiner-Waldorf School philosophy actively discourages any screen time at all for under-12s, and British health watchdog NICE guidelines suggest a limit of two hours of screen time a day for adults and children, although this is more in order to increase physical activity.

"It takes us decades to adjust to new technology," says Dave Coplin, Microsoft's curiously titled chief envisioner.

"Technology is a wonderful thing if we use it properly - and we need to use it properly."

It is the current generation, those of us who remember life before the internet, for whom the draw to technology is irresistible, agrees Dr Ramlakhan.

She says her 11-year-old daughter is already "bored" by Facebook and suggests I ask my four-year-old son to collect up the family gadgets as he will find it far easier than me to initiate switch-off.

"Up-and-coming digital natives will be more discerning than us," she explains.

"We're still in the 'Ooh, isn't it wonderful?' phase of technology, we are still excited by it. Our generation hasn't got the hang of how to respond to it so we respond very reactively."

After a few days of following Dr Ramlakhan's advice I have to admit that I do feel better. I am definitely sleeping more and despite medics disagreeing over whether drinking extra water is actually beneficial, it does seem to make me feel more alert.

Of course, it could well be a placebo effect - I know what I'm doing is supposed to be improving my wellbeing.

Is the physiology sound?

Image caption The phone-charging service at the Wilderness festival got off to a slow start

At the Wilderness festival in Oxfordshire, where the phone reception is terrible but it still costs £5 to charge your mobile, I meet Dr David Cox, a former Accident and Emergency doctor who is now chief medical officer at subscription-based meditation app Mindfulness.

He echoes Dr Ramlakhan's words.

"I don't believe we can be engaging with something to this extent and for it not to be having an effect on our brains," he says.

"The reason we are feeling stressed about all this stuff is that our brains aren't used to doing what we are asking them to do.

"Our brains are very good at adapting and they will continue to do that."

Child's play

Image caption Children play more imaginatively without technology, some schools believe

So how is the next generation shaping up?

A recent study by the London School of Economics suggested that in schools which banned mobile phones, children's test scores increased by more than 6%.

I pay a visit to my son's former pre-school, Wildflowers, in Hampshire - a forest school where there are no screens and outdoor play is non-negotiable, rain or shine.

Head teacher Helena Nilsson says children are like "bees to a honeypot" if she gets out her laptop but without the distraction they engage in much more creative play.

The little ones, however, seem less convinced about the benefits of their enforced digital detox.

"Do you think we should have a computer, tablet or TV at Wildflowers?" she asks.

"YES!" chorus the enthusiastic under-fives unanimously.

Listen to the Business Daily report on tech addiction, from the BBC World Service

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