The latest Ofcom research into internet usage informs us that fifteen million UK internet users have taken steps to ‘digitally detox’ in an attempt to establish a more healthy balance between technology and ‘real life’. The Communications Market 2016 (August) is Ofcom’s thirteenth annual Communications Market report. The key findings from the latest report found that roughly one in three of adult internet users has specifically sought a period of time offline. For those unfamiliar with Ofcom, they are the communications regulator in the UK (similar to the Federal Communications Commision in the USA).
ITV’s Good Morning Britain featured the story in their edition yesterday and invited me onto the show to talk about addiction to smartphones and digital detox. They also invited a family who had undertaken an experiment of having dinner but only communicating by messaging around the dinner table as an attempt to understand how we miss out on social cues by engaging exclusively by electronic means.
I am often asked what constitutes addiction. For me, addiction is a serious bad habit, can be highly condensed, reinforced and consolidated across many neural networks. Fear is a huge factor in all addictions and every addiction has a stress factor. Addiction can be present when you are doing something repeatedly and negative effects start to occur in other areas of your life. You find it very difficult to cut down the activity when you seek to regulate the behaviour. But according to the medical view, Gambling disorder is the only behavioural (non-substance related) addiction, as it’s the only one included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), currently in its 5th iteration. DSM is how psychiatrists diagnose ‘mental disorders’. As an aside, pathological gambling had long been considered by the American Psychiatric Association to be an ‘impulse control disorder’, rather than an addiction. Internet gaming disorder (psychiatrists just love to pathologize with words like disorder, don’t they?) is, however, listed in section 3 of DSM-5 as “conditions for further study”. So, presumably there may be room for smartphone addiction in future iterations of the Manual.
How do you know if you have a problem with mobile devices?
Here are a few general questions you could explore about your relationship with your smartphone:
- Do you use your smartphone more than you are comfortable with?
- Do you panic when there is no cell coverage or wifi connection?
- Do you neglect social interaction with friends and family by spending excessive amounts of time on your device?
- Do you use your smartphone to gamble and spend more time (and money) than you had planned?
- Do you sext with strangers and regret it afterwards?
- Have you been the victim of revenge porn?
- Do you compulsively use adult chat rooms, even when you don’t want to?
- Do you start to feel lonely or depressed as a result of excessive engagement with social media?
- Do you bring your phone to bed?
- Do you feel increasingly stressed from feeling the need to answer work emails beyond the contracted work hours?
- Is your sleep disturbed from excessive smartphone usage?
- Do you spend excessive time on dating apps?
- Do you lose interest in having sex with your partner?
You may have a problem if you are finding it more difficult to concentrate on daily tasks at home or at work, if you are concealing the amount of time spent on mobile devices, if you have a fear of missing out (FoMo) and have a sense of dread or panic if you leave your phone at home. Common withdrawal symptoms from smartphone addiction are anger/irritability, restlessness, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and craving access to your device.
We all need to use online services from statutory services so a complete abstinence based approach is problematical. Indeed we need to be online to progress in careers and to connect with people. However, we can take steps to reduce our reliance on our devices. We can try to set goals for device-free times. We can set our phones to airplane mode during the day and especially at night. We can try to avoid reading work emails beyond certain times,as well as turning devices off two hours before sleep so we comply with sleep hygiene requirements.
If you think you have a problem, you could also consider not bringing mobile devices to bed and removing social media apps from phones. Maybe you could try to refrain from the constant checking of social media updates. See how you cope. If you begin to feel empty, moody and depressed as a result of putting in boundaries you could be experiencing a form of withdrawal.
Considering doing these steps might tell you all you need to know. How does it feel to potentially implement some of these suggestions? Does it seem reasonable or do these suggestions fill you with dread?
Seeing a therapist can be useful to motivate you to set boundaries with your mobile device usage and to address problem behaviour. You could explore what is behind your intense need to feel connected and learn to cope better with everyday anxiety. Therapy could be a means of building your coping skills to better help you to deal with boredom, rejections, loneliness and worry. There can, of course, be underlying issues with depression which might be worth exploring so it may be appropriate to go and see your GP too.