The Connection Obsession

How smartphone and internet addiction impacts American lives.

That more than half of American adults admit to using their smartphones while driving is no surprise. But during sex?

Yep, a mobile consumer habits study showed that 9 percent of American adults confessed to using their phones while having sex. Narrow it down to young adults (ages 18-34) and the figure jumps to 20 percent.

Experts have even come up with a new word to define the fearful anxiety of being without your phone: nomophobia. And if you have it, you’re not alone. In the same study, 72 percent of respondents say they’re within 5 feet of their phones most of the time. 

Make no mistake, we are obsessed with the technology that has brought the world into the palm of our hand. But it’s really not our phones—it’s what we can do with them.

“Unlike previous cell phones, the smartphone is really a portable internet, and you can do all kinds of things on the internet: social media, shop, research, look at porn, gamble and utilitarian purposes, like banking,” notes Nadja Streiter, LMSW, a psychotherapist/clinician and treatment provider at the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction (CITA) in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Founded by renowned cyber psychologist Dr. David Greenfield, CITA treats patients and trains medical professionals with the goal of helping people create a healthy relationship with technology.

“When you’re in front of the screen, one piece of information leads to another,” observes Streiter. “With the internet, the story’s never over and it’s always accessible, whereas with a book, a conversation or a magazine article, there’s an ending.”

Risk Of Addiction

When it comes to classifying mental disorders, clinicians, researchers, health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, as well as policy makers and the legal system, rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM offers standard criteria and a common language for diagnosing mental health issues.

Although anecdotal evidence abounds, Streiter notes that the DSM does not yet officially recognize “smartphone addiction” or “internet addiction.” 

“Just this last summer (2017), the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with criteria to define ‘internet gaming disorder,’ which is the most formal criteria as it relates to internet addiction,” she adds.

If you think only the young are at risk of being addicted to their phones, guess again. Streiter says that all ages are affected.

So what is it exactly that makes people feel they can’t live without the connection provided by their devices?

“There are a couple of reasons why. First, when your smartphone is in the room with you, it raises the stress hormone cortisol. You check your phone to reduce that stress, and it becomes a vicious cycle,” Streiter notes.

“Notifications contribute to the addictive power of smartphones. They provide what we call ‘variable reinforcement,’ meaning reinforcement is delivered at unpredictable time intervals,” she explains. “There’s a reward, which creates dopamine in the brain. It’s sort of like a slot machine; you know there’s going to be a reward, but you don’t know how big or when. If you keep playing, you might eventually hit the jackpot.” 

So when you check Facebook and see “likes” on your posts, this is akin to getting a payout on the slot machine. It’s a reward, and you constantly want more.

On the flip side, our connectivity to the internet via our phones elevates anxiety.

“People tend to post positive things that can make their lives seem more glamorous and exciting than yours,” says Streiter. “Or you’re online seeing things that are just not accessible or possible for you, which is depressing. Or you post something and only three people ‘like’ your picture, which makes you wonder why you aren’t more popular, interesting [or] cared about.”

Ironically, the very technology that is supposed to connect us to others has become more isolating. If you have any doubt about this, look around the next time you’re out in public. A common scene is a group of people sitting at a restaurant table all staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.

This isolation makes us crave more interaction, so we turn to our phones—and the cycle continues.

Streiter says that fear of missing out (yes, FOMO is a real thing) is so compelling that it extends to all our waking hours.

“Forget texting when driving; you don’t have to be typing to be distracted by your phone,” she notes. “That fear of missing something, of wanting to feel connected and wanting to be entertained, none of that goes away when you get behind the wheel of a car. As our ability to delay gratification becomes weaker, it becomes harder not to look at your phone when driving. Some new cars have Apple phone so you can text and do other things by voice.”

Plus, as Streiter points out, “being ‘tech savvy’ differentiates you from people who are not. It makes you feel current and fresh.”

Physical Repercussions

All that screen time is taking a toll on your body. Constantly looking down at a screen results in holding your neck at an unnatural angle and generally rounding your shoulders forward. This altered posture creates muscle strain and pain, often referred to as “text neck.” That’s not all. Hours spent on your smartphone or another device can lead to sleep disturbances, dry eyes, digital eye strain (which can lead to headaches), carpal tunnel syndrome, backache, headache, altered posture/”text neck” and increased illness due to germs (one in six cell phones has fecal matter on it).

 In extreme cases, internet addiction can result in skipping meals and lack of personal hygiene. 

And we’ve all heard about disastrous results of driving while texting, but you don’t have to get behind the wheel to suffer an accident with your phone in hand. A Pew Research study from 2005 to 2010 reported a tenfold increase in injuries related to pedestrians using cell phones.

Getting Help

Treatment for addiction differs depending on the person’s specific problem. 

“One of the challenges in counseling younger people is that they really don’t remember doing anything that’s not technology based,” she notes. “They’ve always had a cell phone, so it can be challenging to have them do anything that’s not related to technology.”

According to Streiter, porn is the No. 1 reason people seek treatment for internet addiction; gaming is the second most common.

“There’s an epidemic of young men in their 20s with erectile dysfunction because with real life women they’re not getting what they’re getting on the screen,” states Streiter. 

Gaming On Steroids

Streiter notes that China recognized gaming addiction as a national problem back in 2008.

The problem is widespread.

Dr. Simone Kuhn of the University of Ghent (Belgium) studied brain scans of “frequent gamers,” people who spend nine hours or more per week playing video games. He found that these individuals had a greater amount of gray matter on the left side of the brain’s ventral striatum, which is an area that plays a key function in reward and addiction.

“The appeal of gaming is that you can be inept socially but be a rock star online if you’re good at gaming,” says Streiter. “Gaming creates dopamine receptors, so when someone stops playing, it’s like having a hungry belly with nothing to satisfy it. Real-life activities aren’t nearly as satisfying as what they’re getting from gaming, so initially a person with gaming addiction needs to have complete restriction from use, such as blocking software on their computer/device to restrict access.” 

Can someone ever play again if they’ve had an addiction to gaming?

For someone who got fired from their job because of coming to work exhausted from staying up all night gaming, the answer might be no. In many cases, however, it’s possible to help the person break their addiction and find a degree of moderation that includes a healthy amount of use for that individual.

Are You Addicted?

As with any compulsive/addictive behavior, realizing you have a problem is the first step. If you think you have a problem, you probably do. (Take the short quiz in this story to get an idea.) 

You can try to curb use on your own.

“There are apps that monitor and track your usage so you can see how much you’re actually using your phone,” suggests Streiter. “For some people, just knowing what they’re doing helps them control it. It’s the same principle as writing down everything you’re eating when trying to diet.”

Be aware that withdrawal symptoms will likely accompany a reduction in smartphone/internet use and may include anger, depression, mood swings, anxiety, fear, irritability, sadness, loneliness, boredom, restlessness, procrastination and upset stomach.

If you’re unable to effectively limit your smartphone or internet use on your own, it’s time to seek help with a mental health/addiction professional experienced in internet and technology addiction (process/behavioral addictions). He or she will perform a personal assessment and then determine the most effective means of treatment.

Practical Solutions

You don’t have to crawl into a cave and relinquish your smartphone forever. 

“Healthy use means balanced use,” says Streiter.

Psychological:

  • Turn off notifications.
  • Don’t sleep with your phone/device.
  • Charge your device in another room, not your bedroom.
  • Minimize phone use when gathering with other people (dining, etc.).
  • When in a group setting, use phone/device only if your response is time sensitive.
  • Use texting to complement real conversation, not replace it.
  • Use an app to monitor and track usage.
  • Limit the number of times you check email/Facebook/surf the internet each day.
  • Set a timer when on the internet.
  • Actually turn off your phone certain times of the day.
  • Remove social media apps from your phone so you have to use your computer to check-in.
  • Make it a point to have face-to-face conversations.

Physical:

  • Bring your phone or device to eye level so you aren’t hunched forward and looking down.
  • Look up from your screen every five minutes or so.
  • Do regular neck and back stretches.
  • Get up and walk around (without your phone/device!) at least once an hour.

U.S. Adults Use Their Smartphones Where?

  • 55 percent while driving 
  • 32 percent at a child’s school function
  • 33 percent on a dinner date
  • 35 percent in a movie theater
  • 19 percent in church
  • 12 percent in the shower
  • 9 percent during sex
Source: Jumio

Virtual Addiction Test 

If your score is on the higher side, it would be reasonable to examine whether your use or overuse is creating any problems in work-life balance. 

1. Do you feel a loss of control and/or feelings of timelessness when using the internet or smartphone?

        Yes          No

2. When not on the internet/smartphone, you are preoccupied with the internet or smartphone, (e.g., thinking about or reliving past experiences, planning your next time to use it or thinking of when you’ll next have access to the internet or smartphone.

        Yes          No

3. Do you find that you spend greater amounts of time on the internet or smartphone to achieve satisfaction similar to your previous use?

        Yes          No

4. Do you find yourself seeking more stimulating/interesting (e.g., exciting) material or content on the internet or smartphone?

        Yes          No

5. Have you had repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, limit or cut back your internet or smartphone use?

        Yes          No

6. Do you find yourself restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop using the internet or smartphone?

        Yes          No

7. Are you using the internet/smartphone as a way of escaping from problems or relieving a bad mood (e.g., boredom, frustration, anxiety or depression)?

        Yes          No

8. After spending what you consider an excessive amount of time on the internet or smartphone and vowing not to do so the next day, do you find yourself using it as much the next day or soon after?

        Yes         No

9. Do you find yourself lying to family members, therapists or others to conceal the extent of your involvement with the internet or smartphone?

        Yes          No

10. Do you find yourself committing illegal acts related to your use of the internet or smartphone?

        Yes          No

11. Have you jeopardized, impacted or lost a relationship, job or educational opportunity because of your use of the internet or smartphone?

        Yes          No

© 2013, 2017 Dr. David Greenfield | The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
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