Digital Addiction Or Habit?

In 1995, a New York psychiatrist coined the term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) in a satirical version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). While it may have been satire then, technology addiction facts paint a vivid picture.

The tongue-in-cheek parody listed IAD’s symptoms: “important social or occupational activities that are given up or reduced because of Internet use,” “fantasies or dreams about the Internet,” and “voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers.” To his surprise, the psychiatrist soon received many earnest messages from self-described “netaholics.” 

Technology Addiction Facts & The Effects Of Internet Usage

A quarter-century later, satire has become science and policy.  In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved the recognition of “gaming disorder” as a behavioral addiction.  According to the WHO, behavioral addiction is an inability to break an extended pattern of activity even if it strains obligations like school, work, family relationships, and sleep. The American Psychiatric Association still does not recognize Internet addiction as an official disorder, but the affliction has received recognition from governing bodies in other countries, including China and South Korea. American and European researchers have created frameworks for understanding excessive time online, coining terms like Compulsive Internet Use (CIU), Problematic Internet Use (PIU), and iDisorder. 

Should society treat problematic technology use as an addiction? 

On one hand, technology users’ brains can look like those of gambling addicts. When a slot machine player hits a jackpot, his brain releases dopamine, a chemical that produces a feel-good reward. The dopamine hit encourages him to play again. Sometimes he wins; sometimes he loses—but the anticipation of reward outweighs the small cost of each loss. The unpredictable wins reinforce his behavior. Over time, the dopamine creates mental associations that encourage the gambler to take compulsive risks.

Brain-imaging studies have observed similar neural patterns among problematic internet users. Human brains release dopamine in response to a wide range of activities, including positive social interactions. Smartphones, computers, and video games offer unlimited opportunities for these interactions. Each “like,” comment or smiley-face emoji produces a small dopamine hit that reinforces preceding behaviors. Like a slot machine play, each interaction comes at a low cost. Over time, these dopamine hits can encourage technology users to compulsively check their phones, refresh their email, or play one more game. 

On the other hand, the internet is not an addictive substance. Unlike drugs or jackpots, social interactions and information access encourage long-term personal development. In moderation, digital technology has the power to inform and empower users. 

Experts agree that screen time does not reliably indicate problematic technology use. Rather, clinicians examine how patients relate to technology within the full context of their lives. How does technology use affect mood? Does unplugging lead to distress? Do patients conceal their technology use? Does digital media consumption interfere with personal relationships?

Understanding these nuances, many clinicians have avoided using the language of addiction to describe problematic technology use. Dr. Mike Bishop is a psychologist and director of Summerland Camps, a summer camp that aims to help young people form healthy relationships with technology.  “We feel the issue is best conceptualized as a ‘habit’ over an ‘addiction,’ ” Bishop told NPR. “When teens think about their behavior as a habit, they are more empowered to change.”

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.

Fostering Healthy Technology Use

Companies, organizations, and health professionals have developed new strategies to help users reset their technology habits. Smartphones now come with built-in tools that allow users to track their screen time. Users can receive real-time metrics that track how much time they have spent on specific apps and tasks. Similarly, PC and laptop users can download browser extensions and other productivity tools that track time spent on distracting websites.

Technology users have also turned to meditation and mindfulness training. Audio meditation apps help users turn their attention away from their social media pages and reflect on their internal feelings and well-being. In-person classes and retreats help users set aside time to unplug altogether. All of these strategies build upon a simple premise: through education, users can reflect on their technology habits and develop new ones. Education is particularly impactful for younger users, whose technology habits are not fully-formed. 

Technology Addiction Facts and Statistics

GenZ is the first generation of “digital natives.” These young people, born between 1995 and 2015, represent a cohort that has had access to the internet and other digital technologies since birth. According to a 2012 Common Sense Media technology addiction study, 40% of teens who owned a cell phone reported that they felt “addicted” to digital devices, and more than 40% said they wished they could disconnect sometimes. 

This year, EVERFI launched the Digital Wellness Network, a community of educators and organizations committed to empowering young technology users. The Digital Wellness Network supports the interactive online course Ignition, which helps middle and high school students take a balanced and healthy approach to the internet and digital technologies. Education will prepare tech-savvy generations to navigate evolving challenges and opportunities.