Many people associate addiction solely with potentially addictive substances, such as drugs or alcohol, overlooking the pervasive influence of certain addictive behaviours, such as excessive technology use.
People of all ages, from adults to teenagers to children, are increasingly compelled to be constantly connected online, checking social media and remaining perpetually available. This behaviour is fuelled by basic human fears of missing out or being left behind, as well as the pleasurable rush of dopamine that comes with using technology. This poses a problem for individuals who cannot recognise the powerful grip that technology has on their lives and overall wellbeing.
Addiction is a complex topic, with numerous studies finding different reasons for addiction and the things that hold people within its grasp. One aspect of addiction is that it is an experience-driven condition. It grows out of routine; out of recurring experiences that give a person a subjective response that then holds them addicted. The same applies to behavioural addictions, and this is where technology addiction sits.
Technology addiction has not been officially recognised in addiction manuals and guidelines. The DSM-5, established by the American Psychiatric Association, only includes gambling as a behavioural addiction. However, there are several other well-known addictions that can easily apply to activities such as online shopping, online gaming, social media, and mobile device dependency.
Listing the many digital experiences and devices that individuals engage with daily, often to the extent of obsession, is a challenging task. Many individuals remain oblivious to their addiction to technology and how it is affecting their quality of life. Perhaps the first step towards self-awareness is to ask a simple question: Do you find yourself constantly preoccupied with it?
Sneaking around to use technology or hiding online shopping and gaming habits can indicate a potential addiction. While it is understandable to seek solace in technology as an escape from negative emotions, relying on it as a consistent coping mechanism is not healthy. Negative emotions and complex situations need to be addressed at their core, otherwise one addictive behaviour will replace another, leading to no resolution.
The problem with online addiction is that you cannot necessarily pinpoint a root cause. You cannot say everyone is addicted to social media, or that there is an underlying condition why they are addicted to it. However, you can assess the role of technology in their lives and seek to reduce its influence. The goal is to find balance in using technology, otherwise it can become an unhealthy obsession.
Behavioural addictions to technology are so compelling because they trigger a rewarding response in our brains. When we use technology, especially social media, it is designed to give us a feel-good sensation by releasing dopamine, a chemical that makes us want more. To make their platforms addictive, technology companies and social media platforms take inspiration from the tricks used in casinos, incorporating similar strategies into their apps and websites to keep us hooked. It is like how Pavlov’s dogs would salivate at the sound of a bell because they associated it with getting food. Similarly, using social media becomes a rewarding experience that keeps us coming back for more.
These tricks manipulate us into staying stuck within technology and social platforms, often feeding us false information and narratives at the same time. For young people, this is a risk because their brains are still in development, and this enforces unhealthy connections.
To reduce the risks of becoming addicted to technology, it is important for users to first recognise the signs of addiction and find healthier ways to feel good and deal with negative emotions. It is completely possible to have a healthier balance with technology in our daily lives, but the first and most important step is to understand how it can affect us and how it might manipulate our behaviour. Proven techniques to help are CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and mindfulness training which aims to help us become aware of our thoughts and emotions without judging them and training our minds to stop automatically giving in to impulses. Instead of judging addictions, we need to ask the question of what problem the addiction is trying to solve, i.e., unresolved trauma, escaping negative emotions and try to find healthier coping mechanisms. Setting boundaries around when and how we use technology is key. By being aware of its influence and limiting our usage, we can have a more balanced and mindful relationship with technology.
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