Michael Decker is always reachable. The 42-year-old creative director from Dallas sleeps with his phone nearby on his nightstand. From when he wakes up and checks it until he sets it down before bed, his phone is constantly with him.
“It’s an intrusion into your own private life,” he says. “It leads to burnout if you can never turn it off.”
Decker, who owns an iPhone , a laptop and an iPad, uses his gadgets for work and for play. Though he makes a point not to look at his phone at dinner, he says his friends still chide him. Put that thing down, they say.
For most of the population, technology is a tool to enhance our lives. Our phone beeps, and we feel compelled to check whatever new text, email or tweet has come our way. Decker’s behavior is not uncommon, nor is it particularly unsettling.
Recently, indications of something more malicious have started to rumble. The Counseling Center at the University of Texas-Dallas has a page on its website dedicated to computer addiction. A quick search of Yahoo Groups returns more than 100 groups related to gaming addictions, with names like WOW — widow and EverQuest-Widows.
Search further, and extreme texting and gaming become more than an annoying character trait in a child or girlfriend. Excessive use can lead to addictive behavior, says therapist Cosette Rae, who launched a technology rehabilitation center in the Seattle area. She says her clients, far from being isolated cases, are part of a newly recognized problem: Technology has the potential to cause addictive behavior, experts say.
The evidence is in the existence of Rae’s clinic, the ReSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program, which she says is the first program of its kind in the United States.
Therapists and counselors are petitioning the American Psychological Association to list technology addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the primary system used to classify and diagnose mental disorders.
Clearly, not every tech user is an addict masking some other mental health issue. Texting during the day and watching TV at night doesn’t mean a person has an addiction, but it is important to evaluate how often and to what extent we use technology, experts say.
Like other substance and behavioral addictions, technology use has a spectrum. While patients at ReSTART struggle with addiction and dependency, most people engage with technology in a healthy manner. Once that interaction creates negative consequences in multiple parts of a person’s life, though, that relationship becomes abusive, says Jason Northrup, a researcher at Texas A&M University-Central Texas.
Researchers are finding that heightened technology use triggers the same sites in the brain that are activated through substance abuse and nonchemical addictive activities such as gambling, Northrup says.
For example, a recent study at the University of Maryland asked students to go a day without electronic technology of any kind — phones, TVs, computers — and record their experiences.
Students used literal terms of addiction to describe their dependency, citing feelings of anxiety, isolation, depression and even physical reactions such as increased heart rate.
Low-level abuse can manifest itself in various areas of a person’s daily life. General wellness suffers as well. Houston counselor John O’Neill points to small, everyday changes such as no longer having to get up and cross a room to answer the home phone.
When evaluating a potential case of technology addiction at ReSTART, Rae looks at all domains of someone’s life, not just how many hours he is spending online.
“We are mental health workers looking at a client’s entire history and how technology fits into that picture,” Rae said. “Often, there’s something in their life leading to this particular escape mechanism.”
Even if technology use is not yet dangerous to them, people need to be aware of the potential problems and be open to the idea that they might need to make some changes, experts say.
“I don’t believe everyone gets addicted to technology, or anything like that,” he said. “It’s kind of like fire. Fire can be a very useful thing or a very destructive thing. It depends how you use it.”