Can’t put your phone down? You’re not alone. A 2016 survey found that the average person spends 145 minutes a day on their phone – that’s over 36 days a year. But for some, it’s more than just a bad habit. Mental health hospitals that traditionally treated alcoholics and drug addicts are now treating tech addicts, too.
One such hospital is the Nightingale Hospital in London. Dr Richard Graham is head of its Technology Addiction Service, and the stories of his past and present patients* may sound familiar. Ryan is a teenager who spends 8 to 10 hours on screens after school, mostly on YouTube. Holly is obsessed with how many Instagram followers she has. Ollie, a man in his early-20s, suffered severe bullying in his teens, and became absorbed in gaming and Netflix. Recently, Ollie ‘woke up’ to what his world had become, Graham says, “and it was so upsetting for him. He felt he’d missed out on relationships, friendships, and all sorts of things that he could see now were what he’d really wanted.” All this raises the question: when does a habit become a problem?
Technology addiction is a term that covers addiction to the use of electronic devices, especially smartphones and gaming consoles. Estimates of just how many people are affected vary between studies, from about two to six per cent, depending on the country and age group. Either way, that equates to at least a million people in the UK alone. And with overuse of gadgets being linked to sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression, that’s not good news.
‘True’ technology addiction, in which a person’s brain shows the same kind of dependency on League Of Legends or checking their Instagram account as that of someone addicted to a drug like heroin, is clearly a big problem for the individuals affected. But it’s rare, Graham says, to find someone who has a truly balanced relationship with technology, and with their smartphone, in particular. “What about the rest of us,” he says, “walking around, staring at our smartphones, narrowly escaping lamp posts and cars and not able to respond to the people in our lives, or not getting a good night’s sleep.” Even this level of tech use can interfere with our health, happiness and well-being, he says.
Nonetheless, many of us rely on technology for our jobs, and for staying in touch with friends and family. As Graham readily accepts, technology in the modern world is not only largely unavoidable but often extremely helpful. But in cases of what’s termed life ‘disruption’ rather than ‘addiction’ – a broader category that surely many of us fall into – strategies designed to help people with technology addiction could help us to use our devices in a healthier way. It’s not just addicts who could benefit from a tech detox.