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This is What Digital Addiction Looks Like

by Marguerite Darlington
December 12, 2017 | Health

Let’s say you’re having one of “those” days at work (you know the type of day I’m talking about) and you find yourself thinking, “I can’t wait to get home to my friends/partner/family so that I can be with the people that I truly care about.”

But what do you actually do when you get home? Statistics say, you probably spend most of that time on one or more of your digital devices. Consider these facts:

Digital Addiction pbs rewire
Source: Adweek

According to Pew Research Center, 77 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone, and adoption has more than doubled since 2011; and 69 percent of U.S. adults are social media users.

The meteoric, ubiquitous rise of smartphones—and internet-connected devices generally—could not have been predicted. And it all happened before we stopped to ask ourselves—is this behavior healthy?

When use becomes addiction

You can be a social media star and not be addicted to digital devices: addiction has more to do with how a device or substance affects your day-to-day life.

Jessica Wong, a state-certified prevention professional at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Saint Paul, Minnesota, says that people can be addicted to technology the same way they are addicted to online porn and video games.

“It impacts the same area of the brain as drugs and alcohol,” Wong explained. “Still, it takes a lot for technology use to meet the definition of dependence. We call it addiction when it starts to impact day-to-day function, relationships with children, spouses, children and friends.”

According to, most addictive drugs flood the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure. More specifically, dopamine regulates our impulse to seek out pleasure, according to Psychology Today.

Dr. Craig Sawchuk, chair of the division of Integrated Behavioral Health at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, uses the term addiction only to describe the abuse of a chemical substance, and classifies excessive technology use as an “impulse control problem.”

Signs that use is turning into abuse

Even though the experts differ on the use of the word addiction, the experts both identify the unhealthy behaviors associated with technology the same way.

Smartphone pbs rewire
Source: Journal of the Association of Consumer Research

“Technology use crosses the line when a person starts to experience functional impairments, in that the use is taking time away from important responsibilities such as work, family and social life,” Sawchuk said. “And they continue to use in spite of negative consequences, for example financial problems, sleep disruption, arguing with spouse, warnings from work and failure to pick up your kids from school.”

But how can you tell the difference between a regular argument or an argument fueled by addiction?

Wong offered some all-too real examples of red flags that indicate that digital use has turned into something that’s not healthy: “The signs of digital addiction mimic the signs you see in someone who’s an alcoholic. People are constantly nagging them about their use, so they find creative ways to lie or conceal use from their family or spouse.

“They hide online shopping or social media use from their spouse, for example they’ll sit in the car on their device before they walk in the door. They need to immediately respond to any text alert, and some people even feel ‘phantom vibrations,’ imagining that they received alerts that didn’t actually happen.”

More screen time, more problems

Unfortunately, dependence on digital devices harms individuals beyond the damage done from neglecting important aspects of life like friends, family and household chores.

  • A recent study in the Journal of Psychopathology found that self-reported “internet addicts” were significantly more depressed than those with a healthy relationship to digital devices.
  • Excessive screen time damages brain function, both in white matter and gray matter, according to Psychology Today. In fact, just holding your smartphone can make it harder to think.
  • Last year, the number of pedestrian fatalities jumped by 11 percent, due to an increase in distracted driving and texting while walking.
  • When kids’ social interactions primarily take place through texts or social media posts, they can fail to develop important skills like reading facial expressions, tone of voice and other social cues, Stephanie Marcy, clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told
  • Internet safety experts agree that the later children get smartphones, the better, according to The New York Times. Maturity helps them cope better with bullies, online predators and sexting.
  • When doctors or nurses are on their phones, mistakes in checking symptoms and in proper treatment went up more than 12 percent with just a single interruption.

You know you have a problem when…

Smartphones are everywhere, but how many people have a real problem with them, exactly?

“About 1 in 8 people have problematic use of technology, they’re making less than healthy choices but they are not dependent,” said Wong. “About 1 in ten have progressed to level of dependence.”

In fact, there are several in-patient treatment programs for internet addiction, including the Center for Internet Addiction, in Bradford, Pennsylvania; the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Connecticut; and ReSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program in Fall City, Washington.

“When people enter a residential treatment program for technology, they leave their cell phone and computer at home,” Wong said. “They have to learn how to set limits for their time online, the difference between socializing and completing functional tasks.”

The trickest part? Most people aren’t even aware of how much time they’re spending in the digital world, according to Sawchuk.

“People tend to under-report use,” Sawchuk said. “Using a simple self-monitoring form or an app feature that shows timing, frequency, and duration of use can be very sobering to help people be more aware of their actual use.”

Ready to test yourself? Dr. David Greenfield developed an online quiz to test your internet compulsion.

Changing family dynamics

You may be a long way from phantom alerts, but remember, statistically speaking, if you’ve got a smartphone and a kid, odds are that digital devices are impacting your relationship with your offspring.

Digital Addiction pbs rewire
Source: Business Insider

A 2017 study by Digital Awareness U.K. revealed that 36 percent of children ages 11 to 18 years old had asked their parents directly to put their phones down— and 46 percent said their parents did not acknowledge this request.

(In this same study, 72 percent of children surveyed reported using mobile devices between 3 and 10 hours a day.)

An expert in teens and technology and how technology affects the family, Wong supports the insight that our children are watching our online behavior and comparing it to their own.

“Whether we think our kids are listening or not, they pay attention to what we do and what we say,” Wong said. “When we set limitations for our kids, we need to stick to what we say. Being consistent with consequences.”

How to set healthy limits on technology use

Unlike addictive substances like alcohol and illicit drugs, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate digital devices from one’s life moving forward.

“From what we’ve seen early on, it’s very similar to an eating disorder or sex addiction,” Wong explained. “You can’t eradicate it from your life, it’s more about teaching people how to build restrictions and boundaries so that they can live healthy lives.”

Even though digital dependence is a growing problem, the good news is that settings limits, although difficult at first, can reduce—if not eliminate—the disruptive behavior.

“Although you may also notice that attempts to reduce use can be difficult, and they may become irritable when limits are set, these reactions are usually temporary,” Sawchuck said. “It’s important to have a plan in place of alternate behaviors that can take the place of excessive technology use that are more functional, healthy, and rewarding.”

Wong and Sawchuck offered several tried-and-true strategies to reduce technology use:

1. Sign a family contract: If someone in your household is struggling to set limits on their digital devices, it can be difficult if others don’t have the same restrictions.

“Sometimes that means that the family takes a step back from technology as a whole,” Wong said.

She recommends a written contract between the family members that specifically outlines when and where devices can be used.

2. Work with your manager to set healthy limits around work: It’s a great excuse, right? But even social media strategists put down the Facebook from time to time. Many Human Resources departments have employee assistance programs that will support you if you are struggling with a documented problem, Wong said.

Another strategy for reducing digital dependence in the workplace is initiating phone calls and in-person contacts rather than sending emails or messages.

“You can learn to balance workplace behavior by asking this question: am I using technology to perform a task or for peer enjoyment?” Wong said.

3. Play the Dinner Device game: This has been in circulation for a while, and it’s a game that you can play when sitting down to a meal at home or when eating out at a restaurant. Everyone places their devices face down on the dinner table, and the first one to reach for their device does the dishes or picks up the check.

4. Schedule time in your day for technology use: Sawchuk recommends scheduling time, which therefore sets limits on its use during appropriate times of the day. Rather than using devices whenever they feel they need to use them, scheduling tech time is a good way to moderate internet use.

“If it’s causing interpersonal problems, say with your spouse, then it may be a good opportunity to negotiate the appropriate time of day and for how long when its least disruptive, not during family meals, wait until after the kids go to bed,” Sawchuk said.

5. Set a technology-free zone in your house: Maybe instead of setting a certain time that you can use devices, you want to set limits on where devices can be used. Wong suggests setting the kitchen as a device-free zone because it’s a great place to interact, and other experts suggest leaving all devices outside your bedroom for a good night’s sleep.

Pro tip: Make one of those rooms the bathroom. A microbiologist at the University of Arizona found that your phone has 10 times more bacteria on it than a toilet seat.

6. Turn off your wifi for hours at a time: If wifi is disrupting your sleep, or if your household can’t seem to follow the limits you agreed upon, then you may have to force the issue by turning off your wifi for hours at a time.

“Most service providers have controls on wifi connectivity, and there are also external control that you can purchase that will work on any signal,” Wong said.

If none of these work, you may need to level up and create a healthy use plan with a qualified therapist, Wong said.

And keep the big picture in mind. Remember, “There is no spoon.”


Marguerite Darlington
Marguerite Darlington has worked in digital marketing and media since 1999, supporting brands like The New York Times, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, Jessica Simpson, ALDO Shoes and various independent entertainment properties. She joined Twin Cities Public Television as Rewire Director in June 2016.
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