Daniel Sieberg, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, realized his social media use might be out-of-control during an encounter with a tiger shark in the Bahamas. As he was staring into the eyes of the massive predator, Sieberg felt a strong urge to pull out his BlackBerry. Then and there, he recognized nearly every instance of excitement in his life accompanied an urge to share the moment through social media. In his new book, The Digital Diet, he cites a barrage of statistics that show technology’s pervasiveness in our lives, from the funny (10% of people 24 and younger believe it’s OK to fire off a text during sex) to the serious (16,000 Americans have been killed by texting drivers).
Most people can manage their Internet cravings and use technology to enhance their work and personal lives. But an increasing number of us are being consumed by it. The American Medical Association claims 68.9% of U.S residents are considered regular Internet users. Of those, 13.7% find it hard to stay away from a mouse for even a few days, and 5.9% of relationships suffer as a result of compulsive surfing. (These problems will only get worse as social networking becomes even more common. Canadian Internet network traffic is expected to quadruple between 2009 and 2014, a year by which 85% of us are projected to have a cellphone.)
Although technology addiction isn’t formally recognized as a clinical disorder, psychologists and psychiatrists are seeing more and more people showing such symptoms: anxiety about having an inbox full of unread messages, the urge to pull out a BlackBerry at every spare moment, or an inability to shut down the laptop in the deep hours of the night.
Quoting the work of a Washington, D.C., neurologist, Sieberg writes, “We often get a hit of dopamine in our brain when people reach out to us through digital means. We begin to desire these messages and notes and postings above anything else and consequently ignore anything else around us.” This explains why so many of us spend so much of our time on social network sites. According to one estimate he cites, Americans spend 10% of their time on Facebook.
Sieberg encourages addicts to manage technology rather than try to eliminate it. To help them, he offers a four-step plan, starting with a review of how technology can overwhelm one’s own life.
By way of example, he cites a moment of his own technological enslavement while on vacation with his wife in the south of France. Amid quaint stone homes and the smell of freshly baked baguettes, Sieberg would find himself sneaking onto a nearby Wi-Fi connection to check his work e-mail while his wife threatened to throw his gadgets in a pool. Evaluating the role of technology in the world around him, he observed, “[Technology] may be systematically, silently and imperceptibly destroying parts of our lives that we hold dear.”
After recognizing technology’s impact, Sieberg prescribes a short-term detox phase—essentially going cold turkey for a few days. This is followed by completing a Virtual Weight Index (VWI), a tracking system, which adds up the number of gadgets owned and online services used, such as e-mail and social networks. As the detox ends, scores are added to the VWI every time the addict e-mails, texts, updates a social network and so on. The index forms the basis of the diet. “The purpose is to see your indulgence in technology in a way that makes it visual,” writes Sieberg.
Recovering addicts are then expected to continually revisit their VWI as they complete the remaining steps: restoring relationships harmed by addiction and developing a new-found healthy relationship with technology.
Brent Conrad, a clinical psychologist at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, who has carved out a niche in dealing with technology addicts, says recovery requires being honest about our motivations. “The common theme that I see [in patients] is the fear of missing out on something, or the fear of being left out,” he says. “People that do an honest evaluation of the priorities that they’ve set for themselves, and make an attempt to achieve that balance in their life, they can cut back.”
On techaddiction.ca, a website run by Conrad promoting healthy computer use, he recommends some simple steps tech addicts can take: setting and adhering to realistic time limits, and scheduling automatic shutdowns for computers. Optimistically, he says “People can take control of this.”