Technology Addiction: Put Down the Device & Get Into Life

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

technology addiction present at the dinner table.Addiction is frequently mischaracterized in binary terms – us and them, normies and addicts.  The truth is that addictive behavior is universal and is, in a very basic sense, one of many manifestations of the way the brain naturally learns and develops.  The more we accurately understand addiction as normal, universal human behavior the more we’ll help people who struggle with addiction to see themselves as normal, not defective, human beings.  Technology addiction, manifest by the attachment to the electronic leash in our pocket, is perhaps the most glaring example of the universality of addictive behaviors.

Modern society seems to have traded a purpose driven life for a device driven life.  Phones, laptops, desktops, tablets and phablets infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives.  I found myself in a sauna the other day with five other people and all five spent the entire time staring into the hypnotizing glow of their beloved six-inch screens.  I looked around a restaurant the other night and counted four tables out of the 14 in my line of sight where people were conversing with one another rather than funneling their existence through the interwebs of their favorite device.  I celebrate when I go to a concert and the musicians have strict no cell-phone policies because God-forbid we actually enjoy the show rather than stream it on facespace live to make all our pseudo-friends jelly.  

Excessive screen time is not a pastime reserved exclusively for millennials. Look around while driving and you are bound to see people without millennial mullets (aka the ‘manbun’) texting with both hands, staring at their lap, and steering with their knees.  A mere 50 years ago the idea of sending someone a photograph of your dinner was absolutely absurd. Now, it seems that with technology addiction, many people care more about how their dinner plate looks on instagram than how it tastes. I teach graduate courses on how to treat addiction and regularly challenge my students to track their screen time on their phone as a way to better understand their own addictive behavior, so far nobody took me up on the challenge.  Most people don’t even want to look at their screen time feature because they “don’t wanna’ know.” Hmm, but your nephew who smokes a joint every night is in denial??

Pre-schoolers average two hours of screen time everyday, which sounds almost like an indoctrination for addictive problems later in life.  I felt accomplished when I got my average phone screen time to under an hour a day, but that does not account for the time I spend typing away on the laptop, watching movies, reading emails, etc. etc.  Factor in the clear effort of social media platforms to get people hooked on likes using the tried-and-true variable ratio of reinforcement and you have a cocktail more potently addicting than any substance because all substances use the schedule of continuous reinforcement.  Addictions take longer to form using variable ratios of reinforcement, but once formed, they are much harder to break than addictions formed with continuous reinforcement.

Maybe it’s because I was born in the last generation to clearly remember life without the internet, but the idea that life filtered through a six inch screen can somehow be more interesting and awe-inspiring than real mountains, sunsets, musicians, books and interactions with people in the flesh seems as ludicrous as it would have seemed to your grandmother if she received a photograph of your Wednesday night dinner in the mail.  The assumption that anyone cares what I’m eating for dinner tonight, or what brand of running shoe doesn’t hurt my bunions, or how long I worked out today, or what anti-perspirant stops my pit-stains probably speaks to the exact types of underlying issues that often drive addictive problems in the first place. To anyone who thinks addiction (of all kinds, not just technology addiction) is an ‘us and them’ thing, try reducing your screen time by 50% next week and then consider what it’s like when so-called ‘addicts’ are told “it’s easy, just stop.”