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Can technology cause addiction health problems?

Can a person be addicted to technology? As defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry… This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors…Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” We understand how this definition applies to alcohol, drugs, gambling or even sex addiction. But what about smartphone technology? Is it possible that those little electronic devices that never leave our side could also have potential for creating addictive behaviors? And if so, how does that addiction impact the quality of our lives?

A paper was recently published which surveyed university undergraduates about their phone behavior and those around them, and how it makes them feel. On college campuses, students are frequently found with their heads down, staring at their screens (a posture nicknamed “iNeck”) and not interacting with each other. This timely survey collected data from the students about when and how much they use their smartphones and the degree to which they feel compelled to check their phones, especially texts and push notifications from social media.

The survey results showed that smartphone technology encourages students to multitask more, despite the acknowledgement that they could accomplish more, faster, by focusing on just one task. This can also be called “semitasking”, meaning they’re doing twice as much, but half as well. The students who spent the most time checking their phones reported the highest levels of depression, isolation, anxiety and loneliness, also known as “phoneliness”.

So is it possible that the students behavior and resulting feelings are actually an addiction? Absolutely. The authors of this paper claim that the addictive behavior that is experienced with smartphones creates neurological connections in our brain similar to that of opioid addiction. It occurs gradually, and it’s a hard habit to break.  “Unfortunately, the auditory or visual (push) notifications activate neurological pathways that are powerful and similar to what would have been triggered by a surprise, or even as if we had perceived a danger signal in our environment (e.g., a predatory carnivore) that would threaten our survival, causing us to momentarily “freeze” and orient to the source.”

As it turns out, to balance the demands of technology, we need sufficient “unplugged” time in order to reflect, create new thoughts and ideas, and provide opportunity for neural regeneration. Without this, illness can develop.

The article recommends some preventative steps you can take if you think you might be headed towards smartphone addiction:

  1. Be aware that tech companies purposely manipulate users into addiction.
  2. Turn off notifications of your apps.
  3. Schedule specific times when you check social media, and stick to that schedule.
  4. Schedule creative work for mornings when concentration is at its peak for most people.
  5. Keep your devices off when in social settings.
  6. Schedule time to be “unplugged” and take time to self-reflect and be creative.

It’s easy to get addicted to these devices which stream continuous information which seems important at the moment. But with a little thoughtfulness and intention, you can proactively prevent technology addiction and its detrimental side effects.



Erik Peper, Richard Harvey. Digital Addiction: Increased Loneliness, Anxiety, and Depression. NeuroRegulation, 2018; 5 (1): 3 DOI: 10.15540/nr.5.1.3

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