Addictions—the Downside of the Digital Age

While experts show that any stimulus can lead to the formation of addiction, society tends to villainize some habits over others, in particular alcohol and drugs. Some of us may be more prone to developing sticky habits, but none are immune. What is the thing that drives our addictions? Scientists say it’s the desire to escape uncomfortable feelings or negative emotions. And that is something we all confront.

May 2-8, 2022 is mental health week, and this year the theme is empathy. It’s all about understanding another person’s feelings and experiences. At times, it’s about showing an attitude of empathy to ourselves. Learning more about behavioural addictions and breaking down stigma helps build an empathetic mindset that can shape our individual and collective mindset about mental health and substance use challenges. Let’s check-in about behaviour that tends to slip under the radar: digital addiction. Take notice of the connections you make between different behavioural addictions; you can apply empathy and techniques to other habits.

We live in a digital world, and while facing the reality of a pandemic, digital life has taken centre stage. When habits become automatic, they can go unchecked. Take social media, for example. It might make you feel awful, but it’s common to check it in lineups, spare moments, and in the bedroom. Our habits extend beyond Facebook and Instagram. Some of us re-fill and empty fantasy take-out baskets in the Uber eats app for restaurants located within a 1 km radius, ignoring the vegetables that protest from the shelves of our refrigerator. We ask Google all of the stray questions that pop into our heads. Reminding ourselves of the habits that drive our daily routines can be humbling. It helps to know how the brain works; knowing that we are wired for pleasure, self-soothing, and escape helps us to recognize our patterns. A crack forms where the light can come in: addictions do not just happen to a certain kind of person.

According to the DSM definition, the thing we are addicted to causes cravings and urges. It gets in the way of our relationships, work-life, and recreational time, and it’s hard to stop doing it. Take a moment and write a list of behaviours that apply to this definition. Still, you might be holding back. It has become commonplace to check our phones while exercising, talking to loved ones, eating meals, or walking the dog. This automatic behaviour can happen anywhere: in the middle of the night, in the washroom, movie theatre, and while driving the car. It’s simply hard to fight the buzz that comes with the ding. 

If you’re realizing that you can scroll through a whole episode of your favourite TV show, you might feel shame, but don’t. Shame, unfortunately, is a common part of addictions. Stanford psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr. Anna Lembke, says, “Just about all of us have a digital addiction drug of choice, and it probably involves using a smartphone.”

If you’re still unsure if you’re in this group, give yourself time. Even addiction researchers and specialists were late to the trend. They were so accustomed to primarily treating alcohol and drugs, but upon closer examination, the similarities were undeniable. Let’s talk about some of them.

  • An average smartphone user doesn’t make it longer than two hours without checking for updates
  • He or she unlocks their phone more than 50 times per day
  • They swipe 2,617 times
  • 26 percent of car accidents in the United States are related to smartphone use
  • Yale Psychiatrist, Dr. Potenza, says that one in four of the patients who come to see him have a digital addiction
  • Scientists believe that anything that can stimulate a person can lead to an addiction.

When clients are thinking about making changes to their substance use patterns, clinicians frequently guide them through a decisional balance exercise. You can think of this as a revamped pro/con list. It enables the client to look at the benefits of their habit and the downfalls. It gives people agency. By the time many clients have gone through this exercise, they know what course they would like to take and because they find reasons of deeper meaning, they persist through challenges and they tend to see results. You may have to do some digging to tap into your deeper reasons but you will feel a sense of conviction when you identify them.

Many of us want to feel less stressed and overstimulated. We want to reduce reactivity, dial-up kindness, and connect to the present moment. We may want more time with our friends and family, and for their passions and hobbies. The good news? It’s achievable. Behavioural addiction steals hours from your day. It’s time to reclaim the calm and precious moments that pass unremarkably with mindless consumption, but it’s normal to worry about cutting back.

What if my friends and family think I’m less available?

What if I become out of the loop?

If I leave social media, will I be forgotten?

How can I get away from my addiction if I spend 8+ hours a day online for my job?

So how do you cut back? Popular culture has made it seem as if abstinence is the only option, but many find their best fit with harm reduction. You’ve probably heard it said that if you’re trying to quit smoking, the best number of cigarettes is 0. Carbohydrates are a little bit different. While they can take their toll on the waistline, mood system, and energy, the goal with carbs is less to banish them than to change your consumption. It’s subtler; experts advise that intake is focused on complex rather than simple carbs.  Digital communication fits into the same category as carbs. In an age where routine and essential acts like banking happen online, it’s a hard sell to go screen-free. The goal is to create healthy boundaries, strong coping techniques, and to identify cravings and triggers to choose a more helpful behavioural response.

As experts become more familiar with the qualities of different behavioural addictions, the hierarchy between screens, video games, alcohol, and drugs flattens out. These are like-minded predators that hunger after dopamine and prey on the brain’s reward and pleasure circuitry. Johann Hari points out that connection is the opposite of addiction, making screen time even more complicated. We are connecting to our colleagues, friends, and family through handy devices but we lose our social capital—the coordination and emotion exchanged by social partners through eye contact. This feature of our connection separates us.

One might think that digital addictions are more benign than substances, but the evidence shows that digital habits can come with serious health consequences. Excess screen time can lead to depression and anxiety. Digital habits can activate feelings of distress, and exacerbate OCD, and ADHD. The smartphone can decimate our attention span, leaving us edgy and restless when we forget our device while running an errand. For those familiar with the vulnerable sensation of walking around phone-less, it can feel like stepping out without pants. A closer look reveals that our neurobiology has been re-jigged under the innovation of Steve Jobs.

It’s not all doom and gloom. If there’s anything that’s come out of the up-and-coming research about substance-related addictions, it’s that the brain is malleable, impressively resilient, and strong-willed. So, here are some evidence-based tips and tricks that can offer you the conviction to see through the first month of your digital (or maybe even substance use) transformation.

Step 1:

Dedicate a scroll + window each day 📲

You didn’t read it wrong; it can be useful to dedicate and define screen time. Much of our use happens on autopilot, in other words, it isn’t a mindful activity.

Step 2:

🧘‍♂️Mindful Screen Use

Instead of scrolling in lineups or at crosswalks, choose when you scroll and really focus on the activity. It can also help to think about why you are opening your phone (for instance texting your teen) and then do just that.

Step 3:

Mute your Notifications 🔕

We talked about dopamine. It’s a neurochemical that can’t resist the reinforcing sound of a text tone or the sight of a banner image. Turn them off, except maybe the ring tone for your partner, mother, or child 😉

Step 4:

Section your Screen Space in the Home 🏡

Keep your space calm by deciding where your cell phone is a welcome guest. Choose a location outside of the bedroom. Let your devices charge and rest at the end of the day. If you work on the computer, try to change up your activities at the end of the day.

You can start by removing work emails and slack notifications from your phone. If it’s possible use a dedicated work computer and use a personal computer for your other activities. This simple separation can signal to your brain that a similar machine stands for a different mindset and purpose. Think of anxiety and mood as living comfortably in a box when you attend to the elements of your wellbeing: nutrition, connection, sleep, movement, and yes, digital activities. The goal is to feel calmer after disconnecting from social media.

You’ll find you are better able to attend to one task at a time without the flurry of expectations often imposed by virtual reality. Giving your brain room to breathe between the dings and pings, will help you find a healthy space for recreation at the end of the day and when you need a break. Let’s face it, we’re in a digital age. But through mindful use, you can get the calm, clarity, creativity, and kindness you crave. 

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