A centre in the US that treats digital addiction is becoming increasingly relevant as technology gets more enticing, says Hilarie Cash
I am the co-founder of an in-patient treatment programme, in Fall City, Washington, for those addicted to digital technology. ReSTART: Internet Addiction Recovery Program (www.netaddictionrecovery.com) was started in 2009 to provide the kind of intensive treatment for digital addictions that is available for chemical ones. Our clients are adults, mostly 18-28, and could be characterised as people who have failed to launch from childhood into adulthood, held back largely by their dependency on digital devices.
All addictions, whether chemical or behavioural, are based in neurobiology and share certain characteristics: a “high” (an effect of the release of neurochemicals in the pleasure centres of the brain) during the earlier stages; the development of tolerance (for example, playing Angry Birds alone becomes boring, so you engage with others); withdrawal (you may become anxious when you don’t have access to your phone); and continuation in spite of negative consequences (even though your obsession interferes with work).
Tolerance develops because the brain, overstimulated to produce the “high”, withdraws increasing numbers of the neuroreceptors that pick up those chemicals (tolerance). When the stimulating activities are stopped, the addict goes into deficit mode (withdrawal) and it takes weeks for the brain to again be able to pick up normal levels of pleasure chemicals. In an effort to avoid withdrawal, and hoping to achieve a high, addicts become obsessed with what they are addicted to.
I ask mobile phone users to consider that they are carrying a drug around with them. Our modern phones are more than just phones – they are computers that allow us to text, game and connect to the web. These are activities that reward us on many levels. Humans are drawn to anything that rewards them unpredictably. Known as “intermittent reinforcement”, this is the principle upon which gambling is based. In the case of digital technology, you never know if the next text you get, action you take or website you visit will please or displease you. With social media sites, you have the added pleasure of social attention.
With all this in mind, I suggest a few simple rules that will help you get rid of or avoid developing a mobile phone addiction. First, set aside times to check for and respond to messages – perhaps at the end of your lunch break or after you get home. Let friends and family know your new policy so they can adjust accordingly. I would advise not using your phone to play games as these are designed to get you hooked. Do whatever you can to ensure your phone does not interrupt your work, study, sleep and social interactions. Finally, learn to enjoy being present with your own thoughts. We all need time to think. Life feels more stressful when you don’t allow yourself this uninterrupted time between activities.
Mobile phones have their place, but must be kept in their place.
Dr Hilarie Cash is an expert in technology and gaming addiction