Look up from this screen right now. Take a look around. On a bus. In a cafe. Even at a stoplight. Chances are, most of the other people in your line of sight are staring at their phones or other devices. And if they don’t happen to have one out, it is certainly tucked away in a pocket or bag. But do we truly have a technology addiction? And what about our kids? It’s a scary question, and a big one for scientists right now. Still, while the debate rages on, some doctors and technologists are focusing on solutions.
“Technology addiction” doesn’t appear in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-V, published in 2013. That’s the Bible of the psychiatric profession in the United States. The closest it comes is something called “Internet Gaming Disorder,” and that is listed as a condition for further study, not an official diagnosis. This omission is important not only because it shapes therapists’ and doctors’ understanding of their patients, but because without an official DSM code, it is harder to bill insurers for treatment of a specific issue.
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is the author of the 2016 book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids. He says there are brain-imaging studies of the effects of screen time, and that he has treated many teens who are so wrapped up in video games that they don’t even get up to use the bathroom. According to him, the evidence is clear, but we’re not ready to face it. “We have, as a society, gone all-in on tech,” he says, “so we don’t want some buzz-killing truth-sayers telling us that the emperor has no clothes and that the devices that we’ve all so fallen in love with can be a problem.” This is especially true for for kids and their developing brains, he adds.
There is still the question of whether media can merely cause changes in your brain, or go as far to create a true physical dependency, however. In the study “A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media ‘Addiction’ in Children,” researchers asked parents of school-aged children to complete a questionnaire based on the criteria for “Internet Gaming Disorder.” For example, it asked, is their preferred media activity the only thing that puts them in a good mood? Are they angry or otherwise unhappy when forced to unplug? Is their use increasing over time? Do they sneak around to use screens? Does it interfere with family activities, friendships or school?
Most experts agree that the question of whether someone has a problem with technology can’t be answered simply by measuring screen time. What matters most, this study suggests, is your relationship to it, and that requires looking at the full context of life.
Labeling someone an addict, essentially saying they have a chronic disease, is a powerful move that may be especially dangerous for teens, who are in the process of forming their identities, says Maia Szalavitz. Szalavitz is an addiction expert and the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way Of Understanding Addiction. Based on her experience with drug and alcohol addiction, she thinks grouping kids together who have problems with screens can be counterproductive. Young people with milder problems may learn from their more “deviant peers,” she says, and for that reason, she would encourage families to start with individual or family counseling. Different habits demand different approaches to treatment.
There are people out there actively working on solutions, however. Gabe Zichermann created an anti-addiction app called Onward, and it has a number of different features and approaches in both free and paid modes. It can simply monitor in the background and give you a report of your use, which for some people, says Zichermann, is enough to motivate change. Or it can share that report with someone else — say, a parent — for accountability (the app is rated for use by 13-year-olds and above).
Or, say you want to stop browsing Facebook during business hours. The paid mode of the app allows you to block Facebook, but it can also monitor in the background to try to predict when you might be about to surf there. “The idea is that when the drink is in your hand, it’s too late,” says Zichermann. In that moment, the app serves up an intervention like a breathing exercise, or an invitation to get in touch with a friend. Zichermann calls this, “a robot sitting on your shoulder — the angel of your good intention.”
The company has partnered with both UCLA Health and Columbia University Medical Center to research the efficacy of the app, and Zichermann says they plan to seek FDA approval as a so-called “digiceutical.” In essence, Zichermann is trying to gamify balance — to keep score and offer people rewards for turning away from behavior that’s become a problem.
The word “addiction” may currently be attracting controversy, but you don’t need a doctor’s official pronouncement to work on putting the devices down more often — or to encourage your kids to do so as well.
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