Technology Addiction 101

Technology addiction isn’t always easy to recognize, especially since many of us must now be “plugged in” so much of the time, whether for work, school or for other reasons. And if a tech addiction is tough to spot, it can be even harder to admit. In fact, denying how much time is spent on devices, social media and the Web is a common warning sign. That’s why it’s important to understand the basics about this disorder, including the causes, telltale symptoms and risk factors that may be involved.

You should know:

  • Technology addiction is an umbrella term that may include addictive behavior to cybersex and online porn; video gaming; gambling; eBay and other online auctions or shopping; social media; excessive texting; or smartphone overuse as well as information overload.
  • One in eight Americans suffers from problematic Internet use, according to a study published in The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine, and rates are even higher in many Asian countries. An estimated 30 percent or more of the Chinese population is classified as highly addicted to the Web.
  • Six percent to 10% of smartphone users display signs of Internet addiction, estimates Phil Reed, a professor of psychology at Swansea University, in the U.K. While there’s currently no standard for what constitutes smartphone addiction, some experts define it as spending more than seven hours a day using the phone and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when cut off from the device.
  • IAD may bring on chemical changes in the brain similar to those caused by substance use disorder, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Children who suffer from Internet addiction have an increased risk of depression, problems at school, obesity and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Causes

Since technology addiction has yet to be classified as an official mental health condition and is largely used as an umbrella term to describe a variety of obsessive or compulsive online behaviors, what causes someone to develop this addiction isn’t very well understood. Like other types of behavioral addictions (think compulsive gambling, shopping or eating), an addiction to tech may result from a combination of biological, genetic and environmental factors:

  • Mental health history: According to studies at the Center for Internet Addiction, technology addicts are likelier to suffer from anxiety, depression, social phobia and sleep problems. And researchers have found that some of the same traits found in shopping addicts — namely materialism and impulsiveness — are often linked to smartphone addiction, according to a small study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.
  • Personality: There’s truth to the cliché of the loner frequenting online chat rooms. Those with low self-esteem may turn to the Web and social media to escape and also to connect with others in an anonymous, non-threatening way.
  • Environment: Job stress and a lack of support at work have been found to increase the risk of developing an Internet addiction. And there’s little doubt that our highly mobile-friendly culture — 58% of American adults have a smartphone, as do 37% of teens, according to the Pew Internet Project — is a big contributor to technology addiction.

Symptoms of Technology Addiction

Recognizing the signs of technology addiction is the all-important first step to getting help — and starting on the road to recovery. Start by asking yourself these questions, which include questions devised by leading IAD experts Dr. Kimberly Young and Dr. David Greenfield and other sources. Answering “yes” to five of these questions may indicate that you or a loved have a problem with technology addiction:

Do you or a loved one…

  1. Feel preoccupied with the Internet (meaning thinking about previous online activity or anticipating the next online session)?
  2. Feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
  3. Feel restless, moody, depressed or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
  4. Stay online longer than originally intended?
  5. Use technology as a way of escaping problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression?
  6. Feel the need to respond immediately to your smartphone?
  7. Constantly check the phone even when it does not ring or vibrate? (Phantom vibration, or thinking the phone vibrates when it hasn’t, is a real phenomenon.)
  8. Ignore what’s happening in real time in favor of what’s happening in the virtual world?
  9. Feel anxious when away from the device or computer?

Have you or a loved one…

  1. Made multiple unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?
  2. Jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job or educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
  3. Lied to family members, a therapist or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
  4. Used the Internet as a way of escaping from problems?
  5. Become defensive when confronted about the behavior?

Other warning signs of technology addiction include:

  • A sense of euphoria while plugged in
  • Neglecting friends and family
  • Skimping on sleep
  • Dishonesty about usage
  • Feeling anxious, ashamed, guilty or depressed as a result of technology use
  • Withdrawing from other activities that were once pleasurable

Physical symptoms of technology addiction may include:

  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Headaches
  • Neck or backaches
  • Dry, red eyes

Risk Factors

The more you know about technology addiction, the better your chances of stopping a problem from getting worse and seeking help if you or a loved one need it. Here are several red flags that may indicate an increased risk:

Gender. Both men and women can develop a tech addiction, but gender tends to influence the kind(s) of technology you or a loved one may use. Men are more susceptible to compulsive behavior with online/video gaming, cyberporn and online gambling, while women are more likely to become addicted to sexting, texting, social media, eBay and online shopping, according to Dr. Young.

Mental health disorder. A psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or bipolar disorder may raise the odds of developing an addiction to technology. Similarly, low self-esteem, loneliness, restlessness and withdrawal can be predictors of overusing the Web as a way to connect with others and increase self-confidence.

Another type of addiction. According to Dr. Young, more than 70% of Internet addicts also suffer from at least one other addiction, primarily to drugs, alcohol, smoking and/or sex. Studies have shown that using technology can bring about the same chemical reaction in the brain as is found in those with these types of addictions.

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