Helping Loved Ones Who Are Addicted to Technology Medical Minutes by John Schieszer

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have increasingly turned to technology for entertainment and information. It is a trend that raises concerns about an increase in technology addiction. According to the Pew Research Center, a growing percentage of people are constantly online, and health officials are concerned about the amount of time children and adults spend with technology. China recently banned children from playing online games for more than three hours a week, internet addiction centres have been opening in the United States, and Facebook has come under fire for teenagers’ obsessive use of its Instagram app.

“There is functional, healthy engagement with technology, ubiquitous and necessary in our everyday lives, and addictive use. It can be difficult to know when that line has been crossed,” says Petros Levounis, who is chair of the department of psychiatry and associate dean at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and author of “Technological Addictions in the USA”. “However, while obsessive use of technology may signal an addiction, it could otherwise be a sign of another mental health disorder.”

While the majority of people who use technology will not have any problems, a percentage have developed an addiction and suffer consequences similar to that from substance abuse. In fact, studies have shown that, as internet addiction worsens, so does the probability of developing a substance use disorder.

Using technology can become an obsession. People start engaging inactivities like online gaming, internet auctions, surfing the Net, social media and texting, and get caught up in the excitement. Soon, the focus shifts from generating feelings of pleasure and reward to being an activity they do to avoid feeling anxious, irritable or miserable.

Levounis says studies are indicating emerging addictions. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersex has increased, along with online dating apps, text chats and online pornography. He says internet gaming has exploded. One of the most concerning aspects with online gaming, explains Levounis, is that companies are now using psychology labs to maximise the effectiveness of their products in a way that is highly reminiscent of how the tobacco companies employed chemists to maximise their products’ addictiveness..

 

Studies Looking at Technology Addiction

Social network users risk becoming more and more addicted to social media platforms even as they experience stress from their use, according to a 2019 study conducted at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and Instagram, are known to cause stress in users, which is known as technostress from social media. However, when faced with such stress, instead of switching off or using them less, people are moving from one aspect of the social media platforms to another. In other words, they are escaping the causes of their stress without leaving the medium on which it originated.

Research into the habits of 444 Facebook users revealed they would switch between activities such as chatting to friends, scanning news feeds and posting updates as each began to cause stress. This leads to an increased likelihood of technology addiction, as they use the various elements of the platform over a greater timespan.

 

Researchers from Lancaster University, the University of Bamberg and Friedrich-Alexander Univeristät Erlangen-Nürnberg, writing in Information Systems Journal, found that users were seeking distraction and diversion within the Facebook platform as a coping mechanism for stress caused by the same platform, rather than switching off and undertaking a different activity. The researchers found that, because social network sites offer such a wide range of features, users can find they act both as stressors and as a distraction from that stress.

 

How Can I Help My Loved Ones?

If you suspect someone you love is addicted to technology, do not try to get the person into a rehab to be cured. “We try not to do confrontation,” says Levounis. “It doesn’t work with alcohol and drugs and it doesn’t work with technological addiction either. You have to ask the person how things are going.”

He says a good approach is to get the person to see the problem themselves. He suggests going slowly and asking your loved one when they went on holiday last. “Try to find something where they say, ‘I wish I had more time’, then you ask them, ‘Where do you think the time goes?’ You need to try to help them see themselves and make their own discovery.”

Levounis says just asking about their day may help them realise themselves that they are spending so many hours surfing the net, on eBay or playing games. Defining technological addition is difficult to diagnose. Levounis recommends finding a therapist who specialises in addiction, who can evaluate the person for a variety of disorders. The person might have depression, anxiety or a more serious psychiatric disorder.

 

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at medicalminutes@gmail.com.

 

 

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