Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/05/2020
There’s no need to point out the obvious: Most of us spend way too much time in front of a screen everyday. Even if you don’t have to sit in front of a computer for work, you most likely spend a significant portion of your off-time hovering over a screen. Each year, from sundown on March 1 to the end of March 2, people around the country take part in “National Day of Unplugging,” a "holiday" geared around put their cell-phones in bags and avoiding screens altogether.
Though this all may seem a bit dramatic, this holiday reflects a bigger phenomenon of people growing wary of our non-stop technology usage.
According to one study, in 2017 millennials spent 223 minutes every day on their mobile devices. With smartphones, things like access to the 24-hour news cycle, video games, music streams, podcasts and social have become much more readily available. In our culture, when something is immensely popular and maybe not that good for us, we rush to label it addictive. But is technology actually addictive? And if not, should we still unplug?
Despite the ubiquity of digital technology, many experts agree that technology addiction isn’t an actual medical condition. For something to be addictive, you will have to develop a physical dependence. Thus far, there is a lack of concrete evidence that backs this notion of technology addiction. Often, when someone is using technology frequently and in a seemingly unhealthy fashion, it could be a reflection of another psychological condition like anxiety, depression, ADD and ADHD.
Think of it like this: Technology is a vessel that may help highlight other, potentially larger issues. Just as how the selfie phenomenon didn’t create narcissism and Words With Friends isn’t solely responsible for teenagers not doing their homework.
A potential reason as to why this fear of “technology addiction” has become so prominent is because it’s the perfect way to express concern over rampant usage. When you think of addiction, you think of someone going off the deep-end with hard drugs as they constantly chase a high.
However, unlike many drugs, there's no physical dependency involved with technology addiction. Dopamine gets released in the brain when you’re doing something pleasurable as a rewards system. When we usually think of dopamine, we think of it is a pleasant byproduct of eating certain nutritious foods or exercising, it could also be released when you engage in addictive behavior. But when compared to actual substances, the dopamine released when using technology is minimal.
For example, playing video games can raise dopamine around 75 percent. On the other hand, cocaine raises it by 350% and amphetamines can raise it 900%. The problem with labeling a technology habit as an addiction is that it implicitly groups it with serious drugs that actually manipulate the brain’s pleasure rewards system.
Even though it’s not clinically addictive, there are still quite a few harmful aspects to always being plugged in. There’s evidence to suggest that as life has become more digital, Americans have stopped exercising as much. In addition, technology usage has been linked to insomnia. The lights coming from the numerous screens we use decrease melatonin—the sleep hormone. On top of that, our digital devices can negatively affect our posture, lead to headaches, impact our vision and more.
While social media was once believed to help us feel more connected to one another and the world around us, studies also show that it doesn’t help isolated people feel less lonely, and that in some instances, it even makes perfectly socially acclimated people feel lonelier. However, disavowing social media and digital devices altogether is simply unreasonable.
However, that doesn't mean you can't minimize the negative aspects of technology and curb your "addiction" to it.
You might not be physically dependent on social media but it’s easy to develop compulsive behaviors around it. With apps like SelfControl, you can block yourself from certain websites for a specific amount of time. This way, you can minimize your screen time by doing the work that’s necessary. You can spend less time working in front of a desk and more time away from a screen.
Too often, our idea of unwinding involves doing something in front of a computer. If bingeing Netflix is actually keeping you awake and subsequently making you more stressed, you should look into other ways to relax. Pick up a hobby that’s 100% non-digital, like making pottery, painting, crafting or hiking. Any hobby that encourages you to put down your phone and spend time doing something else will work. These hobbies could help you feel productive while also giving you some necessary time to check out of our hyper-connected world.
There are plenty of medications and vitamins that could help you get a better night’s sleep and feel more at ease, too. In addition to cutting back on technology usage, things like exercise, eating healthier and seeking counseling could also help improve your mental health.
Instead of waiting for one day a year, try to see if you can unplug a few hours a day and find realistic ways to improve your relationship with technology. At the end of the day, we live in the 21st century and there’s no way to turn back the clock. Everyone can find a solution that fits their unique needs.
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