Can you be addicted to technology?

When someone gets a new phone or video game that they can’t get enough of, it’s not uncommon to hear them say they’re addicted to it.

But what do we really mean when we say we’re addicted to something? Addiction actually means, according to the NHS: “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.”

How unhealthy are our phone habits?

The symptoms of addictions to things such as drugs and alcohol are well documented, and are known to tear people’s lives apart. Are computers and phones in the same bracket? Is it really appropriate to use the word addiction when talking about tech?

Dr Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute argues that being addicted to something like alcohol involves negative behaviours as a result of chemicals affecting our brain. What he thinks we really mean when we say we’re addicted to tech is that it’s engaging, and we want to keep using it.

However, some psychologists argue that addiction is exactly the right word for technology that keeps a minority of people dangerously hooked.

Disorder or addiction?

Internet Gaming Disorder (IAD) is now included in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases.

Whilst not explicitly describing it as an addiction, this means that experts acknowledge there is the potential that people can play video games to such an extent that it will negatively impact their life, and the lives of those around them.

However, there’s still a lot of debate between psychologists about whether IAD should be classified as a disorder. The American Psychiatric Association for example haven’t said it as a unique disorder in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the other big manual of disorders used by psychologists. It was however recommended for further research.

Disorders and addictions are different. The definition of addiction is debated among psychologists, but it’s normally described as a state of dependency to something that negatively impacts our lives, with clear causes. Disorders, on the other hand, have clear symptoms, but what’s causing them isn’t as clear-cut as with addictions. So, for example, you may be as compulsive as an addict, but until more research is done into why you’re acting the way you are, experts would be wary to label it as an addiction.

However, many countries are investing in medical treatment for disorders relating to tech. Now that gaming disorder is officially classified by the WHO, the NHS has started developing a gaming treatment centre in London. China, South Korea and Japan have established treatment programmes to tackle over-excessive use of the internet. Newsround on CBBC recently went to an ‘internet addiction camp’ in South Korea, and one girl explained how she would spend 18 hours on YouTube every single day.

Professor Phil Reed, a Psychology lecturer at Swansea university who researches internet addiction, says it “doesn’t really matter in some ways” whether its a disorder or an addiction, “it’s disrupting your life and it’s terrible.”

“You can see a really complete and total disruption of a person’s life, their ability to function, their ability to form relationships, hold down jobs, the whole spectrum of their life falls apart because they’re spending too much time gaming.”

Brains hooked on technology

Prof Reed believes there are three distinct ways that tech addiction mirrors substance abuse:

  • disruption - it negatively impacts your day-to-day
  • withdrawal - you suffer when you’re not using it
  • tolerance - you need more and more of it to get the same effect

With alcohol and drugs, things like the withdrawal effect links to chemicals that are being consumed. Nicotine for example is extremely addictive because it alters the balance of dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain, which affects mood and concentration.

Whilst a substance does this directly to your brain, Prof Reed says that using technology can also trigger the release and suppression of chemicals in the brain. This then in turn can become addictive: “So although technologies don’t have chemicals of their own, they’re piggybacking on the effect it has on our own neurotransmitters.”

Using technology can affect your brain.

Prof Reed says that when you’re hooked on technology, there’s a “huge range” of brain chemicals that are impacted, including:

  • Dopamine - a brain chemical released when something happens that you enjoy. It can increase in response to stimuli like music, food or love. Having a bit of what you like can give you a “dopamine hit” - and technology can do this for you if you enjoy a game, interacting on social media, or watching your favourite series. Dr Reed says: “If you’re hungry and you see a cream cake pass by you, your dopamine fires off, because something good is coming and you want it.” But if you’re hooked on the dopamine hit provided by cream cakes - or your favourite app - it’s difficult to say no to one more. “If that cream cake passes by you and you’ve already eaten ten of them, it won’t fire, because although you know it’s good, you don’t want it anymore.”
  • Serotonin - this is a mood regulator. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression, so without it you can feel pretty low, and if your tolerance levels to technology are high, it might be harder or take longer to feel good when using it.
  • Cortisol - this is a stress hormone linked with the ‘flight or flight’ effect in our body. It makes you aware of stressful situations and gives you a nudge to attempt to exit it. This is usually helpful, but it’s also released when we stop using tech that makes us happy, so it makes us twitchy and anxious in withdrawal.

When we’re hooked on something, whether that’s a substance or technology, there is more going on than just the chemical effects. “We’ve got to remember that alcohol and drugs and smoking are not only used for the direct chemical effect that the substance has,” says Prof Reed. “They’re often used to overcome or escape from other problems that that individual might have in their life.”

Coming back for more

Dr Ceri Bradshaw, who researches screen addictions and, like Prof Reed, works in the psychology department at Swansea, says popular games and social media are built deliberately to keep reeling people back in, and that the companies creating them have their own reasons for doing so:

“They are extremely motivated to make sure that the games are as compelling as possible and in order to do that they implement many tricks and tactics… to make them as reinforcing as possible.”

She gave examples such as: “auditory and visual rewards for winning moves, incremental rewards that increase as you go on that reinforce correct behaviour, obviously the visual appearance of them, the movements and the colours and the attractive aesthetic properties of them.”

While Internet Gaming Disorder is now a recognised illness, other areas of tech addiction require further research according to experts.

But it’s not just games that have built-in elements to keep us hooked.

Dr Bradshaw explained: “We know the reinforcers are very well worked out (with social media). They’re ingenious but they are also extremely basic. It is based on the amount of endorsement you get from other people.”

Another feature that is employed on social media is the endless scroll. There was a time when, if you were browsing, you would actually reach the end of a page and have to click to the next one (we know, it’s hard to believe). This might then subconsciously feel like a nice cut off point for the user, and a good time to log off.

Now though, as you may have seen, you can keep scrolling almost infinitely. This is designed to make it harder to want to leave the platform.

Technology and the law

The effects of internet and technology over-use are wide ranging and in some cases, can drastically affect people’s lives. Because of this, some governments are attempting to legislate to mitigate the effects of it.

For example, the US government has brought in the Social Media Addiction Reduction Act (or SMART for short) which aims to “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice.” In other words, it means social media companies are in theory not allowed to purposefully devise methods for keeping people unhealthily hooked to their platforms.

The world is starting to become more aware of the dangers of tech addiction, and how it can be prevented or treated. According to Dr Bradshaw, the important thing is focusing on “harm reduction” - in other words, learning about the harmful effects of technology can help us to have a more healthy relationship with our favourite devices.

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