Katherine Allen

 

Do You Ever Feel addicted to technology? You are not alone.

By Katherine Allen

 

It’s easy to spot them. They walk around with the most up-to-date iPhone or BlackBerry in their hand, waiting for the next burst of communication, as they Twitter away on their laptops. It’s an obsession—a compulsive need to stay connected to the world.


In September, a train engineer, distracted by text messages, allegedly caused the worst train crash in 15 years when he missed a red light and collided with a freight train. In October, laptop-consumed commercial jetliner pilots overshot their destination by 150 miles. In 2007, a New York senator proposed the ban of gadgets like BlackBerries and iPods on the streets after several people had been killed as a result of “iPod oblivion.”


Almost 40 percent of Americans admitted that they have one of three following problems: not being able to stay away from the Internet, feeling like they need to cut back on Internet usage or thinking that they stay online longer than they intended, according to a 2006 Stanford University study. Six percent felt their relationships were suffering from tech habits.


Why do so many Americans struggle to stay unplugged and offline?


Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry in the UCLA medical school, said compulsive technology behaviors strike the same brain chords as a chemical addiction like alcoholism.
“The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive,” Small wrote in a Psychology Today article.


The rush every addict is after is controlled by the dopamine reward system or the brain’s “pleasure center,” Small said. Dopamine levels shoot up when people have sex or eat.
Basically, whether somebody gets their rush from polishing off a few bottles of whiskey or from blasting off BlackBerry messages, dopamine sends messages to the pleasure center, causing addicts to seek the rush over and over again regardless of pain or consequences.
Technology itself is not addictive, but rather the individual techno corners that a person gets pulled into. For example, a person may get addicted to online gambling, porn sites or checking their e-mail, Small said.


Andrew Dillon, the Dean of the School of Information at UT and Internet psychology expert, said the online world has become almost as diverse as the real world. What this means is pre-Web addictions like porn, gambling and shopping are succumbed to in a much easier, quicker and private fashion.


Dillion said there is some level of escape in these technologies and people feel as though they have more control over their online world than they do in reality. The escape theory is supported through sub-reality online communities like Second Life, a program that allows users to interact with self-designed avatars. The Second Life interactions can be as innocent as talking over martinis to purchasing houses to having sex.


While the current news buzz has been focused on the professional world, those most likely to experience compulsive Internet and technology use are college undergraduates. At least 12 percent of college undergraduates are addicted to the Internet or online gaming, according to a 2007 study by Kimberly Young, a leading expert in technology addictions. College students make up around 50 percent of all tech addicts.


The American Psychological Association formally recognizes technology addiction as a mental disorder, although Dillon said we should look at it as a moving target because not all addictions have the same psychological experience.


“The APA classifies lots of mental conditions and revises the classifications over time, Dillon said. “It's likely the addiction to the 'net is more about the perceived need to be connected, the loss of time awareness while online, a compulsion to respond to and monitor online activities.”


People are wired to respond to changes and movements. Technology is a portal that allows people to do that all day, Dillon said. The devices are sleek and are suppose to convey a sense of being connected.


“Ever hear of people using cell phones walking down the street who are not actually connected to anyone?” Dillon asked. “With these technologies, you get the perfect storm of size, ease of use, public display, real-time updating, and even, surprise surprise, genuine information.”


Carlton Erickson, a professor in the College of Pharmacy at UT, said there is no doubt that a compulsion for certain activities exists, but the evidence to back the exact brain function controlling compulsive technology behaviors is still not completely understood. There has not been a study that can absolutely prove that a techno junkie’s “rush” or “high” is linked to the same brain pathway as that of a drug user, Erickson said.


Drugs like cocaine, heroin and alcohol work by suppressing and surging different chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain. When an addict no longer has their drug of choice the imbalance in chemicals in the brain sends the user into chemical withdrawal.
“There is no actual substance [with technology],” Erickson said. “This is where we need more research.”


Controversial or not, compulsive technology behavior became addressed by the opening of the first techno rehab center, reStart: Internet Addiction and Recovery Program. The techno rehabilitation center located outside of Seattle, Wash, admitted its first patient, a 19-year old whose World of Warcraft obsession led to college failure. The treatment center focuses on reintroducing people to things they once loved before text messages, video games or the Internet consumed them.


“We believe there is reason for concern when individuals use technology instead of being physically and socially active,” said Anna DiNoto, a spokeswoman and intern at reStart.
It’s tough to hammer-down the exact number of people who struggle from technology compulsions because the numbers are always changing. Numbers vary from study to study depending on the criteria used, DiNoto said.


Somebody is seen as a technological addict when they experience a loss of control, develop an increased tolerance and experience occupational, social, relational, academic, or daily living problems. A key symptom is when somebody shows signs of withdrawal when deprived of technology-of choice activities, DiNoto said.


There are strong parallels between drug addicts and technology addicts in that repeated use of either causes an imbalance in the brains neurotransmitters, DiNoto said. Eventually an addict’s brain hits the reset button, essentially setting a new level for the amount of chemicals needed. Think of it like a thermostat, measuring the level of heat in a room. If the gage is bumped up two degrees it will take that much more heat for the thermostat to feel at ease.


Technology has brought advances in different areas, namely the medical, political and communication fields. The challenge is to make sure that we adapt social norms and understand how different technologies impact us. A large concern is the age that technologies are introduced to children. Companies are beginning to market gadgets for toddlers that could stunt their cognitive development, DiNoto said.


Andrew Dillon, an Internet psychology exert, said many technologies are adopted and used by people in ways that their creators did not intend. Social structures are slow to change, but eventually they tend to adopt and react to environmental shifts.


“We are at an early stage of a permanent shift in our understanding of being connected to the world of information and each other, Dillon said. “I suspect we will evolve cultural norms and educational processes that reflect the presence of these technologies.”

 

 

 

 

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