Lets face it, the Internet is addictive and “smartphones” have only exacerbated the problem by giving us 24/7 access to the Internet. Whether you are into Facebook, text messaging or just surfing the internet for news, its hard to resist the temptation to constantly check for status update, new message or breaking stories, even when you should be focused on a real-life activity (such as spending time with your children, spouse or friends). New research not only confirms this common-sense observation, but suggests that compulsive behaviors are as potentially destructive to our relationships as drugs.
Researchers have concluded that the Internet is so addictive because much of what we do online, like illicit drug use, releases dopamine into the brain's pleasure centers, resulting in obsessive pleasure-seeking behavior. Anticipating the reward of new content, such as a text message or Facebook post, or achieving a goal in a video game (think “Angry Birds”) excite the neurons in brain, which release dopamine into the brain's pleasure centers. That in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, people become obsessed with these pleasure-inducing experiences and begin to compulsively check Facebook, emails, text messages, or play games or gamble online. This behavior-reward feedback cycle is known as a “compulsion loop” and it is the same mechanism that forms the basis of nicotine, cocaine, and gambling addictions. In the case of the Internet, the result is the compulsion to accumulate friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, or otherwise seek “rewards,” even if those “rewards” are essentially meaningless.
Smartphones have exacerbated the problem because their users do not get any break from the compulsion loop. It’s like having a never-ending supply of drugs immediately available. Incredibly, young adults have been found to spend up to seven hours a day using communication technology. Previous studies have found that people aged 18 to 29 send on average 109.5 texts a day, or about 3,200 messages a month. They receive 113 texts and check their phones 60 times in a typical day. For some, the Internet becomes a compulsion, while others suffer feelings of withdrawal if they are separated from their smartphone, a study found.
“At first glance, one might have the tendency to dismiss such aberrant cell phone use as merely youthful nonsense — a passing fad,” states Dr. James Roberts, of Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business in Texas, “ but an emerging body of literature has given increasing credence to cell phone addiction and similar behavioral addictions.” Participants in these studies report they feel trapped by impulses and behaviors they can’t control, even when they also see themselves doing incredible damage to their lives. “Sometimes it’s with gaming, other times online porn, and I’ve even seen others who have had trouble with dating and hook-up sites,” reports Dr. Roberts.
Older adults are not far behind in developing Internet addition. A recent study by the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda found that smartphone users exhibit actual withdrawal symptoms when forced to abstain from using their devices. The study also found that many subjects felt physical discomfort after not checking their phone for extended periods of time. Internet users become so obsessed with the Internet that its use is undermines their social relationships, family life, marriages, and their effectiveness at work.
Are you one of these people? Do you constantly check and update Facebook during the day and feel anxious if you haven’t done so recently? Do you constantly surf the Internet to see if there is a new article on your favorite website? Do you get annoyed when you don’t get an immediate reply to a text message? Do you aimlessly check you smartphone at parties or other social gatherings? Have you reconnected with past flames on the Internet while in a committed relationship? Do you hide some of your on-line activities from your spouse, children or significant other?
If you identify any of these behaviors in yourself, realize that you might have a problem. The solution starts by recognizing that the constant availability of the Internet, text messaging and social networking has significant real-life consequences. Assess your own activity and modify your behavior accordingly. For example, when you get home from work, don’t just put your cell phone out of reach, shut it off. The same goes for when you are spending your time with your children or are at a party. It will set an example for your children, improve your adult relationships and give your brain a break. Don’t be the father who sends the message to his son that his phone is more important than him.
For further advice on how to stop a smartphone addiction click here.