Digital Dope: Are You Addicted To Your Screen?

Nov 1, 2017

Has this ever happened to you? You call your __________ (spouse, sibling, boss) to discuss something important. Maybe it’s about an upcoming vacation. Maybe about the work you’ve just been assigned. You know how busy and distracted people are—and it’s the middle of the day—so you check first to make sure that now is indeed a good time to talk. They say yes, sure, and you think you have their full attention. 

And maybe you do.

But not for long. 

A few seconds into your conversation you can hear in their voice that they’re not really paying attention. The “uh huh’s” are coming at the wrong time … there’s an awkward silence in place of what should have been a response. 

Even more tellingly, you hear the sound of a keyboard in the background. They’re listening, they really are! But only with part of their attention. With the rest of their brain, they’re scrolling through Facebook, deleting junk email from their inbox, or playing Candy Crush. 

And as many times as you’ve experienced that half-attention from someone else, you’ve probably done it yourself to someone else.

A parent pushing a stroller while talking on the cell phone. 

A boss texting directions to employees in the midst of a staff meeting. 

An interrupted dinner to watch a video clip about the phenomenon of black holes the family was just discussing.

It’s yesterday’s news that we live in an age of distraction, and that this distraction comes to us courtesy of our electronic devices. 

Are we, in fact, addicted to this brave new digital world?

We already know that Americans—and people who live in every country in the developed world where electricity is a given—are spending inordinate amounts of time on their screens. 

Indeed, the average American kid spends as much as seven hours a day on a screen, according to the American Academy of Pediatricians. And adults of all ages spend even more. A survey of media consumer habits done by the Nielson Company found that in the first quarter of 2017 the average Baby Boomer spent eleven hours and 12 minutes a day—more time than they spent sleeping—consuming media. 

What are we all doing for that many hours? According to the Nielson report, we’re watching TV, playing videogames, surfing the Internet, playing DVDs, and using smart phones. 

My eyes hurt just thinking about it. 

Or maybe my eyes hurt because I’ve been in front of a—you guessed it—computer screen for about seven hours already today, researching, reading on-line, and writing this article, as well as checking and answering emails, and posting updates (some about screen addiction) on social media. Egads. 

The United States of Distraction? Check. Too much time on screens? Check. But addiction? Are we, in fact, addicted to this brave new digital world?

Consumers, Sure, But Are We Addicts?

Scientists, researchers, and medical doctors have long argued about the definition of addiction. While this was a word once reserved almost exclusively for illegal drug use and alcoholism, most psychiatrists now recognize that we humans can also become addicted to harmful behaviors. 

In 2013, for the first time, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the definitive publication of the American Psychiatric Association that defines mental illnesses, recognized one behavior—gambling—as an addiction. 

It was then that the fifth edition of the DSM moved compulsive gambling into a chapter called, “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders.” Though that may not sound like a watershed moment for those of us who are not mental health professionals, the publication of the DSM-5 marked a shift in thinking among addiction and mental health experts that many believed was long overdue.

Part of the justification for this new classification was that scientists found, over the course of more than ten years of research, changes in the physiology of the brains of compulsive gamblers. Several studies showed, through imaging technology, that the brains of pathological gamblers actually looked similar to the brains of hard-core drug addicts—showing impacted impulse-control and heightened activity in pleasure centers of the brain when presented with monetary rewards. These results have not been entirely consistent, and screen activities (including obsessive gaming and Web surfing) have not been formally categorized as “addiction,” at least not yet. 

Still, since 2013 the medical establishment has recognized something that loved ones of those addicted to gambling, pornography, shopping, food, and even television, have long known to be true: These “softer” addictions are anything but. Like addiction to opiates, heroin, meth, and alcohol, addiction to digital media can compromise our health, make us miserable, and get us to a point where we find it impossible to tear ourselves away. Digital consumption has the ability to excite us, over-stimulate us, and make us irritable to the point of violent objection when we are forced to stop. Like a drug addiction, it can push us to act irresponsibly and irrationally, leave us craving more, and impact our lives with sometimes devastating and lasting negative consequences.

There is a reason why Dr. Peter C. Whybrow, M.D., Director of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior calls screens “electronic cocaine.” 

Just ask Maria (not her real name). Maria’s now ex-husband, an educator in Medford, Oregon, was so addicted to on-line porn that the day their son was born he went home to watch for hours on the computer instead of staying with her and the baby in the hospital. 

Or Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., a New York-based addiction specialist and author of the 2016 book, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids and How to Break the Trance. Kardaras describes how his patient found her son one night when he was supposed to be sleeping: “…sitting up in bed staring wide-eyed, his bloodshot eyes looking into the distance as his glowing iPad lay next to him. Beside herself with panic, Susan had to shake the boy repeatedly to snap him out of it. Distraught, she could not understand how her once-healthy and happy little boy had become so addicted to [Minecraft] that he wound up in a catatonic stupor,” Kardaras writes in an article in the New York Post.

Hilarie Cash, Ph.D., has seen firsthand how screen addiction can lead to this kind of disturbing behavior. “It’s really a brain disorder,” Cash says when I interview her by phone as she is driving to work. Cash is one of the founders and the chief clinical officer of reSTART, a residential digital addiction treatment program based in Washington State. “We produce neurochemicals to function and we all need those neurochemicals in a certain normal balance. If that balance is off, we experience various mental health problems. One of the problems we experience is addiction when we’ve over-stimulated the pleasure centers of the brain.” 

Cash says reSTART’s services have been in increasing demand since they opened their doors eight years ago. In fact, a new program for younger adolescents is so overflowing with applicants that they can barely hire employees fast enough to staff it. The problem of screen addiction in America, according to Cash, has been steadily getting worse. 

“People really totally lose control, and they cannot stop themselves from engaging,” she explains. “There are all kind of negative consequences that they experience—like being seriously underweight or overweight, being sleep-deprived. Some of them have serious strains on their tendons and back. And then there are social and academic consequences. That’s what digital addiction is.” 

The Biggest Candy Store In The World

It may seem easy to shrug off these examples—a 6-year-old in a catatonic stupor and a new father neglecting his wife on the day of the birth of his baby—as extreme. But even ordinary people who don’t tend towards addiction find themselves having extraordinary problems controlling their screen use. 

I first met Stephen Sloan, a business consultant and father of three, at a parent gathering hosted by the school his two younger children and my seven-year-old all attend. Today we’re sitting at the dining room table in his brightly lit home on a cul-de-sac in Ashland, Oregon where he works from a home office. 

Ashland-resident Stephen Sloan, a business consultant and father of three, is concerned about his digital addiction.
Credit Jennifer Margulis

He has a standing workstation in one corner with an oversized computer monitor, a second desk by the window, and walls that are covered with bookcases holding hundreds of books. 

Sloan tells me he’s been an avid reader his whole life, and that he loves to learn about new things. He was the kind of kid who read the encyclopedia as entertainment in the summertime, he says, but he doesn’t read paper and ink books much anymore. The Internet is so much faster—and so much more enticing. Sloan says it’s easy for him to lose himself in reading on-line, surfing from one news article to the next, and going down information rabbit hole after rabbit hole. And he finds it very difficult to limit the time he spends on-line. 

Sloan, who identifies himself as a digital addict, is of two minds about it—on the one hand having this much information at his fingertips is exciting and helpful, no, essential, for his job. On the other, he is disturbed by how many hours he is spending on the Web and how much time has disappeared from his life because of it. He believes that his Internet addiction and what he calls his love of “info-bathing” has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income and may be getting in the way of other aspects of his life. 

“The Internet is the biggest candy store on earth, it’s like a giant dopamine hit waiting to happen,” Sloan says. “There are wonderful things out there to experience. And a lot of dross.” He’s quiet for a moment, considering his next words. “It’s really an amazing tool. I use it all day every day for business. I do a huge amount of work on my phone. I can’t turn mine off very easily.” 

Given he has a successful career, three healthy kids, and a good relationship with his ex-wife, I ask him if the time he spends on-line is really a problem. “Massive,” he says without hesitation. In many ways, though some are more difficult to articulate than others, he feels that this addiction may be getting in the way of him having a more productive and meaningful life.

One Doctor’s Concerns

Now, tell the truth. Have you ever:

1. Guiltily stuffed your smart phone into your pocket or closed your computer to hide what you were doing on it from a friend or loved one?

2. Lied to yourself or others about how you were “working,” when you were really on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, or _______ [fill in the blank with your website or social media channel of choice]?

3. Thought to yourself, “I’ll hop on for twenty minutes,” but stayed on-line or on a videogame for two hours or more?

4. Had an overwhelming urge to get back on-line though you haven’t been off-line for long?

5. Felt sick, ashamed, or physically in pain (backache, carpel tunnel) after being hunched in the same position playing a videogame or consuming media on-line?

If you’ve answered YES to even one of these questions, you may have a problem.

“It becomes a problem when you find that [you or] your child is not able to go without it, when they start to exhibit withdrawal symptoms,” says Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D., a psychiatrist in private practice in Medford. “When you’re not doing it you somehow don’t feel normal, you don’t feel good. You also have a craving for it. You exercise a lot of your mental energy trying to think about how to get it back.”

Powell insists that the litmus test for digital addiction is not just how many hours a day or a week you waste on-line, but if you find yourself spending time you had no intention of spending, lying about your use, or upsetting those closest to you by your incessant digital activity. 

“When you have these negative feedback systems saying to you, ‘This is not good. We think you should stop doing this so much,’ and you don’t listen to that negative feedback because it’s more important to you to continue to engage in the activity, then you know you have a problem,” Powell explains. 

Psychiatrist Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D.
Credit Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D.

“Particularly when you start to see someone living a double life because they know that this is not okay in other people’s opinion but they still want to do it.”

One of Powell’s biggest concerns about the over-use of digital technology, among both children and adults, is how it has the potential to disconnect us from each other, making it harder for humans to be together in community. I’m sitting on a couch in the downstairs of her house but I find myself thinking of a time when I was overseas leading a media and communication training for a non-profit. After a long day of teaching, there was a party at the director’s house. During those awkward moments at the beginning of the party, three of the young staff members pulled out their phones. I looked over the shoulder of one. He was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook with his thumbs. We were at a party together—less than two feet away from each other—but his attention was completely engaged elsewhere. There was no way to start a conversation. It felt like a missed opportunity to meet, connect, and create opportunities. 

So when Powell tells me she thinks children and adults alike are not spending enough time face to face, I find myself nodding vigorously. Being overly stimulated all the time, especially overly visually stimulated, Powell continues, creates a kind of attention deficit in all of us, an unfortunate and potentially mentally compromising need to be constantly entertained.

“People are getting less direct feedback from interactions with other people,” Powell explains, adding that this is problematic, especially for younger children. “You can be horribly nasty [on social media]. You can kill and slaughter, rape and pillage [in videogames]. And there’s no feedback telling you that’s not a good thing to do. If anything, it’s validated.”

It’s not an accident, Powell goes on, that gaming and social media are addictive. The more media we consume, the more lucrative it is for Silicon Valley. “They want your eyeballs because that makes money,” Powell points out. “We’re living in a culture where there is an attempt to get you addicted. They want consumers to come back.”

Tips For Healthy Screen Use

It’s something of a cliché to point out that the older generation is often suspicious of and judgmental about the next generation’s technology. 

But though media attention tends to center around children and screen time, we know that we adults are actually spending nearly twice as much time as youngsters consuming digital media. Perhaps it’s not our children we should be worrying about, but ourselves.

So how do we set limits on our screen use so we can reap the benefits of the Internet Age without its ills? How do we make ourselves turn off these oh-so-enticing devices when our eyes start to hurt and our sleep starts to suffer or when a loved one points out that we’ve been overdoing it? How do we keep ourselves and our children from getting full-blown addicted?

Stephen Sloan, Hilarie Cash, and Diane Hennacy Powell all offer lots of good advice. I listen to their many and varied suggestions: sunset your house’s Internet access at the same time every night; block problem programs with Apps that allow you to use them for a prescribed amount of time; interact with social media via a program like HootSuite, Buffer, or SproutSocial, where you can schedule a week’s worth of updates so you aren’t actually visiting the social media site itself; never sleep with your phone in your room or allow your children to do so; monitor your time playing videogames and enlist help from others to make you don’t overdo it; have a screen-free Saturday or Sunday (at least one day a week where devices stay OFF all day); make sure you do at least an hour of exercise a day, preferably in nature, preferably with your phone at home; schedule screen-free together time that brings you joy with friends and family; talk about the problem, the potential for the problem, and the possible solutions with your loved ones and anyone else who will listen. 

But all of this, I realize as I close the computer and turn off my smart phone, is so much easier said than done. In our family it’s a work in progress with more “work” happening than progress. Fights, nagging, contracts with our 13-year-old son that are signed but then broken have become the norm.

My son’s not the only one who worries me. My office is behind the house and recently we’ve found bear cub scat on the path leading back to it. At the end of the day, I leave the laptop and smart phone in the office to deter myself from obsessively checking Facebook, breaking health news, and emails after supper. But at 10:00 p.m., a half an hour after my son was supposed to dock his phone in the living room, he’s alone in his room playing Clash Royale and I’m shivering my way back to the office. I forgot to add tags to the post that is set to publish first thing in the morning. That’s all I’ll do with my computer, I promise myself. There’s no way it can wait.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., a frequent contributor to the Jefferson Journal, is an award-winning investigative journalist. A Fulbright grantee and graduate of Cornell University, she is currently writing her eighth non-fiction book. The book, co-authored with Portland-based Dartmouth-trained integrative physician, Paul Thomas, M.D., is about addiction. Read more about her—where else?—on-line at www.JenniferMargulis.net.