Technology: Is it making addicts of us all?

Next year, for the first time, “Internet use disorder” will be listed in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“The latest trend on the Internet,” said Tracy McVeigh in The U.K. Observer, “is to step away from the Internet.” With smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices reshaping how people work, communicate, and spend their free time, scientists and psychologists are starting to question what our reliance on these devices is doing to our minds.

Next year, for the first time, “Internet use disorder” will be listed in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said Matt Richtel in The New York Times. Even in Silicon Valley, there is a growing concern that technology is taking over people’s lives. “We’re done with this honeymoon phase, and now we’re in a phase that says, ‘Wow, what have we done?’” says tech guru Soren Gordhamer, who has organized an annual conference of digerati called Wisdom 2.0 to explore the need for balance in a wired world.

Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are now teaching their own employees meditation and “mindfulness,” and warning them of the dangers of constant texting, tweeting, and web-surfing. “It’s this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices,” says Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who consults with tech company executives. “People feel not just addicted, but trapped.”

Don’t blame the gadgets, said Alexis Madrigal in It’s not your smartphone’s fault that you compulsively check your email “at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed.” It’s mostly the fault of our employers, who now expect workers to be available 24/7. We can also blame the “strange American political and cultural systems” that make us feel guilty about taking any time off, and obligated to meet the growing demand for nonstop productivity. People have iPhones in Britain and Germany, too, yet “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.”

Beware: We’re already paying a steep price for our digital obsession, said Tony Dokoupil in Newsweek. Research shows that constant use of these devices is actually rewiring the physical structure of people’s brains. Every time your phone, tablet, or computer pings with a new text, tweet, or email, it triggers a sense of expectation, and the reward centers in your brain receive a pleasurable “squirt of dopamine.” Over time, a brain habituated to these quick fixes shrinks the structures used for concentration, empathy, and impulse control, while growing new neurons receptive to speedy processing and instant gratification. Brain scans of Internet addicts—defined as anyone online more than 38 hours a week—can resemble those of cocaine addicts and alcoholics. Symptoms of Internet addiction can range from depression to acute psychosis. The Internet, in other words, is “driving us mad.”

I know of a good treatment, if not a cure, said Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. It’s called nature. When we get into the great outdoors, the illusion of control that technology provides disappears, and we are “deflated, humbled, and awed all at once.” In the “vast natural cathedral,” we are reminded of a world much larger than ourselves—one that predates us, will outlive us, and at whose mercy we exist. To escape our “post-industrial self-absorption,” we all need to leave our iPhones at home at least once a week, and go take a walk in the woods. Your devices will be waiting when you get back, and you’ll be a bit saner when you rejoin the endless conversation.

- As seen in The Week
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