What becomes of digital addicts in the ‘always on’ era?

Contributed by writer and journalist, Philip Ellis

In January, Internet Gaming Disorder became officially recognised as a mental health condition by the World Health Organisation. Comparable to gambling addiction, IGD is characterised by symptoms such as spending excessive amounts of time online, an inability to control use, and a loss of interest in other activities. While far from being a new phenomenon, the fact that the WHO is now taking online addiction seriously has got a lot of people worrying about their own digital habits.

In the UK, the average adult spends eight hours and 41 minutes each day on a screen; longer than they spend sleeping each night. More than two of those hours are on social media. We pick up our phones every six and a half minutes, amounting to 150 times a day. Which certainly sounds like compulsive behaviour.

“Hundreds of daily activities that used to be performed in separate locations, with different gestures, and through a range of interpersonal interactions, have now all been collapsed into the smartphone,” says Jocelyn Glei, a writer, editor, and host of the podcast Hurry Slowly. “Our brains have been trained to allot a substantive portion of our ‘automatic attention’ to our smartphones.”

There is growing concern about the long-term effects of screen time. Recent research suggests that the mere presence of a phone has negative effects on your ability to function; having a smartphone in your sight line reduces your available cognitive capacity, while neuroimaging analysis indicates a link between excessive screen time and atrophy in grey matter. And that’s before we begin to address the psychological ramifications; last year Instagram was ranked the worst social network in terms of negatively influencing young users’ mental health.

While studying the clash between parents and children over screen time, researchers at Central Michigan University devised a reporting metric that actually might prove helpful to parents as an early detection tool. It’s called the Problematic Media Use Measure (PMUM) and cross-references child behaviour with symptoms of addictive behaviour as outlined in the diagnosis for Internet Gaming Disorder. A correlation emerged between children who have a lot of screen time, and children with a high score for problems in their conduct and socialising.

The PMUM was found to be effective in detecting problematic media use in children under 12, and the results suggest that addictive media behaviour can begin much earlier than parents realise. “We are still in the early stages of the digital revolution and new media experiences such as virtual and augmented reality are just around the corner,” writes Romeo Vitelli PhD for Psychology Today. “Perhaps now, more than ever, we should consider what this might mean for the children who will be at the forefront of this new digital era.”

But let’s not clutch our pearls just yet; our future doesn’t have to resemble those smug cartoons depicting a Black Mirror future where we’re all slaves to our devices (images which are, ironically, shared on social media). Technology already surrounds us; we can’t turn back the clock. Alexa and the Internet of Things aren’t going away, and I’d wager that a great many consumers wouldn’t want them to. Going cold turkey is becoming less and less of an option. So the question becomes; how do we maintain a healthy relationship with technology, when it surrounds us 24 hours a day? And if this problem stems from technology, can technology help fix it?

A number of founders seem to think so, as evidenced by the emergence of digital detox start-ups, which aim to empower consumers to become cognisant of their digital habits in order to then foster a healthier relationship with their devices. There are apps like Moment, Checky, and Space, all of which track your screen time and let you know exactly how many times you check your devices each day, and might be useful in helping users identify habits and set limits.

Then there are gadgets like Ditto, which assist in putting those limits into practice. Ditto is a tiny device which clips onto your clothing and only vibrates when you’re being contacted by people who you deem essential, like your employer or your spouse, meaning you can stash your phone away and carry on, distraction-free, safe in the knowledge you’ll never miss the “important” calls.

Catherine Price, author of How To Break Up With Your Phone, created the 30 Day Phone Breakup Challenge as a response to her own device dependency. “There was definitely a crystallising moment,” she says, “I was sitting with my baby and noticed that she was looking up at me, while I was looking down at my phone. I realised I didn’t want that to be my daughter’s first impression of a human relationship.” Price and her husband started experimenting with 24 hour detox periods, and soon found that changing their habits around screen time led to a different mind-set in other areas of their lives.

“It’s not about abstinence, it’s about consciousness,” says Price. “And it’s not about spending less time on your phone, it’s about spending more time on your life, and you need to be aware of what you want that life to look like.” As part of the challenge, Price designed a series of resources and mindfulness techniques to help people clock their own habits and pick up their devices less frequently during the day, such as a range of lock screen wallpapers which ask the user questions like ‘What do you want to pay attention to?’ and ‘Do you want to pick me up right now?’ (Users can also generate their own prompts, if they think a snarkier or more aggressive tactic is needed to help them kick the habit.)

Another simple practical tip offered by Price; make your iPhone intrinsically less exciting, by switching the display to greyscale. I did this for a few hours out of curiosity, and it certainly affected how I felt when looking at my device. Unlocking the home screen, usually an explosion of colour, felt sapped of any enjoyment.

Or maybe you just need the occasional time-out. Nicole Cliffe is a writer, advice columnist and co-founder of the late, beloved humour site The Toast. She’s an absolute delight on Twitter, where she chronicles the minutiae of her daily life — which means she tends to be online quite a lot, something she is hoping to remedy through self-imposed withdrawal.

“I absolutely spend too much time on my phone,” she says. “And if it were just Twitter or Reddit, that would be one thing. But if I’m reading a book on the Kindle app, I start Wiki-ing relevant details… the whole device is the issue. So the various apps and Chrome extensions to cut back on usage are fine, but I feel like tech is not gonna get me out of the tech problem.” Her decidedly analogue solution? The kSafe, a time-lock container that can be used as a discipline tool for parents, or a way to curb cravings.

Of course, there’s a difference between knowing you spend a lot of time on your phone and putting measures in place to limit that, and being diagnosed with a full-blown addiction. We mustn’t conflate the two in our panic to resolve this perceived mental health crisis. The confluence of all aspects of life in a single device means that we’re not just becoming addicted to technology for its own sake; in many cases, we’re deriving real meaning from our online interactions.

Social media and instant messaging allow us to nurture friendships and collaborate remotely, which is a boon to anyone with a busy life, but especially to users with disabilities or social anxiety, for whom IRL face time isn’t as easy. The same goes for marginalised groups such as LGBTQ people, who find community and a kind of refuge in the digital world. It’s important to remember these users when talking about our increasing ‘reliance’ on technology; for many, logging off might actually be detrimental to their wellbeing.