As I write this article, I have three browsers open and am almost 20 tabs deep in the internet jungle. I spend approximately 6-7 hours on the internet on a given work day. I frequently experience that annoying “phantom phone buzz” where you feel like your phone has buzzed when it actually hasn’t. I often spend way more time than I originally wanted to scroll through endless feeds of information and/or social media.
I ask myself: “Am I addicted to technology?”
There are currently close to 3 billion Internet users, worldwide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 83.1 million people (1) between the ages of 18 to 34 in the nation. Studies show the average Millennial spends 8 hours per day using any type of digital media.
One in eight Americans suffers from problematic internet use, and rates are even higher in many Asian countries. An estimated 30% or more of the Chinese population is classified as highly addicted to the Web. (2)
Quite simply, the internet is unavoidable. As we become more and more enmeshed in how we use the internet to communicate, learn, remember, relax, and connect, the lines of dependence become increasingly blurred.
Although technology and the internet come with a huge repertoire of benefits to enrich our lives, research has found that internet addiction — such as playing online games for 10 to 12 hours a day — may rewire certain brain structures, as well as cause brain matter to shrink. (3)
What is Internet Addiction?
Over time, our moods can become dependent on technology for pleasure. Every time we play a game on our smartphones or get a “like” on social media we get a little rush by stimulating the pleasure centers of our brain. In its absence, we feel bored. This can create a dependency loop and potentially a loss of interest in your offline life.
When we hear the term “addiction” we often think about substance based addiction such as alcohol or drug abuse. Common withdrawal symptoms of substance abuse can include:
- Anxiety or jumpiness
- Shaking or tremors
- Excessive sweating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sleep or appetite disturbance
Interestingly, preliminary research suggests that heavy internet users are susceptible to the same emotional withdrawal symptoms that drug users experience.
At its most extreme, problematic internet use has been termed “Internet Addiction” or “Internet Dependency,” defined as: “the inability to control one’s use of the internet which leads to negative consequences in daily life.”
Warning Signs of Internet Addiction
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The following list may indicate signs of internet addiction (4):
- Preoccupation with the internet or thoughts about previous online activity or anticipation of the next online session.
- Use of the internet in increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction.
- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop internet use.
- Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down the use of the internet.
- Being on-line longer than originally intended.
- Jeopardized or risked loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunities because of internet use.
- Lies to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet.
- Use of the internet is a way to escape from problems or to relieve a dysphoric mood. (e.g. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.)
How Are Our Brains Are Changing?
Our brains are amazing and have the ability to develop based on how it’s used. Texting and surfing the web use different parts of the brain than reading or speaking. Naturally, as we shift how much time we spend surfing, we start to rewire our brain.
The areas of the developing brain that are most affected by technology according to neuroscientists are:
- The prefrontal cortex controls personality, cognition, and social behavior
- The cerebellum coordinates and regulates muscular activity, including those linked to language
- The parietal lobe deals with interpreting language and words
So What Do Those Changes Look Like in Our Day-to-day Lives?
1. Changes in How We Access Saved Information
Research has found that when we know a digital device or tool will remember a piece of information for us, we’re less likely to remember it ourselves. To compensate, we’ve started to use our devices for something called “transactive memory” or the art of storing information in the people around us.
We have begun to treat Google, Evernote, and smartphones the way we’ve long treated our spouses, friends, and workmates: as external hard drives.(5)
2. Impaired Short-Term Memory
As more and more information is available to us at a rapid pace, information overload makes it difficult for us to retain memories. Eventually, this loss of brain inactivity may impair how we process short-term memories into long-term memories. (6)
3. Multi-Tasking ADD
Have you ever started with one window open to Facebook, got side tracked in a Buzzfeed article, all while listening to music, and texting your friend? This is known as “partial attention” where you feel like you are multitasking but in reality, you may just be distracted.
It remains to be seen if partial attention is a distraction as most believe or an adaptation of the brain to the constant flow of stimuli.
4. Reading Has Been Replaced With Skimming or “Power Browsing”
Continuous online browsing has changed the way we read information where we’re no longer reading left to right, up to down. Instead, we seem to “power browse” or scan horizontally through titles, bullet points, and information that stands out looking for quick info.(7)
Often people will only read one or two pages of an article, or not even read the article at all! How many time have you shared an article with a friend without reading it yourself?
5. A Loss of Creative Thinking
Some experts believe that memorization is critical to creativity. William Klemm, a neuroscience professor at Texas A&M University, insists that “Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot…Einstein was so creative because he remembered and built upon the knowledge of numerous predecessors and contemporaries.” (8)
10 Ways To Give Yourself a Digital Detox
- Turn your phone on night mode more often. This stops you from checking your phone as frequently and still allows important calls to come, though.
- At dinner with family or friends, make sure your phone or tablet is away and out of sight.
- Leave your devices in another room or keep a few rooms in your house “device free.”
- Monitor and limit the time you spend browsing or scrolling and set a timer as a reminder.
- Call a friend instead of texting or e-mailing.
- Go for a weekend digital detox out of the city, away from technology. Spend more time outdoors in nature, leaving devices at home or on silent.
- Don’t bring your phone to the bathroom with you.
- Turn off some of your notifications – do you need to get email notifications as frequently as your current setting? Do you need all of those game notifications or social media notifications? Turning them off or down reduces phone checking.
- Read a book
- Play a game in real life with your family or friends!
Time to power off!
- Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2016, from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-113.html
- Aboujaoude, E., Koran, L. M., Gamel, N., Large, M. D., & Serpe, R. T. (2006). Potential Markers for Problematic Internet Use: A Telephone Survey of 2,513 Adults. CNS Spectrums CNS Spectr., 11(10), 750-755. doi:10.1017/s1092852900014875
- Ko, Y. (2013). Design of Internet Addiction Management System Based on Self and Parent Assessment for Secondary School Students. Journal of Educational Research Institute, 15(1). doi:10.15564/jeri.2013.05.15.1.145
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