Are Electronic Devices Hurting Your Brain?

 

 Are Electronic Devices

Hurting Your Brain?

By Dr. Gary Small and Posted by Douglas Raine

 

People are fascinated by new technologies. Our brains love novelty, and a gadget that makes our lives more efficient is always welcomed. When I was young, there was no such thing as

a push-button phone or a remote control TV. We were more patient then — we got up to change the channel and never considered screening our phone calls. But eventually, every TV came with a clicker and every house had an answering machine. And the pace of technological innovation has only accelerated. It seems that every few months now bring some newer, better gadget than what we already have.

But is all this advanced technology really making our lives healthier and better? In this month’s issue of the Mind Health Report, I will examine the question of whether we

can actually become addicted to our gadgets, and  how we can better manage technology so that it enhances our lives but doesn’t rule them.

 

Technology Changes the Brain

Technology has made us impatient. If we send an email or a text message, we expect an immediate response. Why bother calling someone at their home or office when you can reach him or her directly on a cell phone at any time of the day? In fact, today’s smartphones are not just phones anymore — they’re hand-held personal computers that can instantly provide the answer to any question or give the exact location of almost anything in the world.

There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives; new studies indicate that it is changing

our brains as well. Research at UCLA showed that searching the Internet causes significant increases in neural activation of the brain’s frontal lobes, where we make decisions and hold short-term memories.

Many of us have become so dependent on our gadgets that we can’t seem to live without them.

Some even fly into a kind of panic if their web server goes down or the electricity goes out.

When you bring up the subject of addiction, people automatically think of alcohol or drugs. But

the same brain networks that control dependence on such substances can also lead to dependence on almost any pleasurable experience, including eating, shopping, sex, gambling, or surfing the web.

The easy access and perceived anonymity of new technology appears to fuel people with a predisposition to compulsive behavior, leading to what many experts are now calling an addiction.

Internet addiction was initially described as excessive online use that shared features with other addictive disorders.

Such features include preoccupation with the activity, inability to diminish use, and a need for more of the experience to match the original thrill.

Initial studies of Internet addiction defined the disorder as involving 38 hours or more of Internet use each week. The prevalence of this condition is not known but it is estimated that up to 10 percent of all Internet users reach that level.

A 2013 study published in PLOS ONE showed that Internet addiction was associated with depression, impulsivity, and autistic traits.

Whether they’re surfing the web, playing video games for hours on end, or sorting through

hundreds of emails, when people become engrossed in gadgets, their brains and bodies automatically react to the repetitious stimulation. Heart rate slows, brain blood vessels dilate, and blood flow shifts away from the major organs in the body.

This constellation of physiological responses allows the brain to remain focused on the device. However, prolonged use and rapid shifts in visual stimuli can cause disorientation, poor

concentration, and mental fatigue.

Yet despite these symptoms, an addicted user may not be able to stop.

 

Battle in the Brain

No matter what their activity of choice is, addicts become conditioned to compulsively seek

a burst of euphoria — what many call a “rush” — from the experience. Such pleasurable sensations are controlled by a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which modulates behaviors related to rewards and motivation.

Just as drug addicts report a feeling of elation from acquiring or preparing medication, many people who seem addicted to their computers feel a burst of euphoria at the mere sound of their computers booting up.

The brain’s frontal lobe normally regulates dopamine urges to continue an activity for prolonged periods of time. A particular area of the frontal lobe, the anterior cingulate, plays an

important role in this rational decision-making. But when a person is excessively drawn to

technology, elevated levels of dopamine tell the brain “give me more, give me more.” Meanwhile, the anterior cingulate serves as the brain’s voice of reason, signaling “slow down, use restraint.”

When people struggle with addictions of any kind, there is a battle between the primitive, feel-

good dopamine tracks in the base of the brain and the rational anterior cingulate circuits in the frontal lobe. To help people overcome their addictions, the dopamine system needs to be controlled and the anterior cingulate circuits require strengthening.

Are You a Gadget Addict?

To determine how dependent you may be on your technology, check off those experiences that apply to you. If two or more of these statements apply to you, consider trying the strategies on page 7 to gain more control over your technology use. I often anticipate my next technology session. I have a need for longer periods of technology use to feel satisfied. I often think about previous online or other technology experiences.

I find it difficult to cut back on or stop my technology activities. When I do cut back, I experience withdrawal symptoms (e.g., restlessness, irritability, other changes in mood).

I tend to use technology longer than I originally intended. My tech use has had a negative effect on my job, education, and/or relationships. I sometimes conceal my technology use.

I use my technology to relieve uncomfortable feelings, escape problems, or avoid relationships.

 

Who Gets Addicted?

Although children, adolescents, and young adults tend to use more technology than older

adults, people of any age can become addicted because everyone is susceptible to the dopamine euphoria that results from technology use.

Dopamine can cloud the judgment of the brain’s frontal lobe, with dangerous or even lethal

results. For instance, texting while driving is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated; many states now have laws against even holding a cellphone while operating a vehicle.

Anything that has the potential to boost dopamine poses a risk for becoming habitual.

And people’s dependence on technology varies according to the content of the technology use. Some individuals get hooked on Internet dating; others can’t resist web shopping,

pornography, online gambling, video gaming, or even email. Some report using devices as a way to escape from uncomfortable feelings. One of the most powerful appeals of new

technology is the sense of control it brings; people can feel empowered by the instant gratification it provides. With just a tap on the keyboard or the click of a mouse, we can control the pace of communication with others — or choose to not

communicate at all.

 

Accountant Needs Tech Holiday

As a partner in an accounting firm, Vince was always busiest in the months leading up to April 15. His wife Rita dreaded that season because Vince’s time at the office practically doubled, and he would spend hours on the home computer finishing returns and responding to emails.

As tax day approached, Vince was going to the office on Saturdays and spending Sundays on

the home computer. He even started bringing his laptop to bed and worked long after Rita fell asleep. Luckily, their 25th anniversary was coming in May, and they were going away on a tropical vacation. Rita hoped that they would finally have some quiet time to unwind.

Tax day passed, and Vince and Rita checked into a bungalow with an ocean view and their own jacuzzi. Rita unpacked her clothes and books and was ready for the beach — but Vince was scouring the room for electrical outlets.

Eventually, he called the front desk for adapters to charge his smartphone, laptop, e-reader, and the tablet he played his word games on. Rita could only shake her head, amazed that he

considered all of those gadgets “essential.” She left for the pool and told Vince to meet her there.

When Vince finally got down to the pool, he was upset. “Did you know there’s no Wi-Fi in the

hotel? I can’t check my email,” he complained.

Rita touched his hand. “We’re here to get away from all that, remember?”

“I can’t just disappear. I’ve got to call my office.” He pressed a button on his phone, held it to his ear, and then looked at it. “Unbelievable,” he said. “No

reception.”

“If there’s an emergency, the kids know how to contact the hotel,” Rita told him. “Just relax and order a Mai Tai.”

The next morning, Rita went down to the beach. Vince said he would be there soon. Yet

at noon, he still hadn’t showed up and Rita was worried. Vince wasn’t in the room. The concierge said that he’d given Vince directions to an Internet café down the road.

When she got to the café, Rita saw Vince at a table typing frantically on his laptop. She walked over and shut the computer. “We’re here to spend time together, not work,”

she said. “It’s our anniversary. You promised me.”

Vince was about to give her an argument, but stopped himself. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

That night Vince had trouble sleeping. He tried reading but he couldn’t concentrate because his mind was still on unfinished business in the office.

At breakfast the next morning, Vince was distracted and tired. But after a massage and swimming all afternoon in the ocean, he finally slept through the night. When he woke up, he

seemed different in some way to Rita. By day three of their vacation, she knew things

were looking up when she saw him pack all his electronic gadgets in his suitcase and zip it up. They were finally ready to enjoy their anniversary.

 

Symptoms of Technology Addiction

Technology addiction can creep up on you. Without even realizing, Vince had become so

dependent on the technology he used for work that he’d forgotten how to enjoy his time off.

But when his addiction began to interfere with his anniversary, Rita’s persistence and patience helped him put down his devices. Several factors can predispose people to

developing an addiction. For instance, some inherit a genetic risk for any number of addictive

behaviors. These individuals sometimes experience serial addictions, wherein they kick one habit, such as overeating, only to move on to another, such as drinking or playing video games.

Others become obsessive and compulsive about electronic devices, which they use to help them escape from stress, depression, anxiety, boredom, or relationship problems. For many young people, peer pressure can spur a preoccupation with social media, video games, or chat rooms. Experts are still debating whether or not people

can truly become addicted to the Internet and other technologies.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental

Disorders has classified these behavior clusters as obsessive-compulsive disorders rather than addictive disorders. Those who are able to drastically cut down  or stop their technology use do not experience severe physical withdrawal symptoms like those withdrawing from alcohol or drug abuse.

However, many of the other behaviors experienced in technology addiction are identical

to those observed in drug or alcohol addiction. Even though physical withdrawals do not

accompany technology addiction, there are physical side effects to overuse of technology.

Spending hours staring at a computer screen can cause muscle soreness, eye strain, and

headaches. And repeated use of a keyboard and mouse can lead to chronic tendonitis, as well as neck, shoulder, and lower back pain.

 

Kick the Habit, Gain Control

Maybe you have a true technology addiction, Maybe you have a true technology addiction,

or maybe you’re just spending a bit too much time with your gadgets. Regardless of the degree of control that computers have on you, it is possible to cut back and spend more quality time “unplugged.”

Motivated by the millions of youths who became addicted to video games and the Internet,

the Chinese government funded the first technology-focused addiction treatment centers.

They combined tough-love strategies with regular physical exercise programs to help young

people kick their tech habits.

Now rehab centers for technology addicts are available throughout the U.S. and Europe to treat tech over-users of all ages.

Fighting a technology addiction is similar to beating a food addiction. We need food to survive, so we can’t abstain complete or maybe you’re just spending a bit too much time with your gadgets. Regardless of the degree of control that computers have on you, it is possible to cut back and spend more quality time “unplugged.”

Motivated by the millions of youths who became addicted to video games and the Internet,

the Chinese government funded the first technology-focused addiction treatment centers.

They combined tough-love strategies with regular physical exercise programs to help young

people kick their tech habits.

Now rehab centers for technology addicts are available throughout the U.S. and Europe to treat tech over-users of all ages. Fighting a technology addiction is similar to beating a food addiction. We need food to survive, so we can’t abstain completely.

Similarly, in the modern world computers and other technology have become essential tools for managing our everyday lives.

An alcoholic can avoid bars and cocktail parties to reduce the temptation to drink, but an Internet addict may still need to use a computer at work and in other situations he or she will encounter in daily life.

Successful interventions help an addict to use technology in moderation, rather than abstaining completely.

Most interventions are designed to help tech addicts tolerate the discomfort of nonuse and

learn to substitute healthier activities in place of technology. Support groups and 12-step programs similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as different forms of psychotherapy have also been effective for many people.

In addition, some traditional rehab centers that treat drug and alcohol addiction have adapted their programs to help those who suffer from technology addictions.

When a technology-dependent person also suffers from depression or anxiety, psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both may decrease their compulsive desire to use computers.

If a tech addict suffers from a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder, behavior therapy and antidepressants can often relieve their symptoms and make it easier to withdraw from their technology.

Several other strategies have been helpful for people to gain control over their technology

addiction and live healthier lives off-line:

·        If particular websites entice you, try using filtering programs that monitor content.

·        Use your computer in a public area so you are not tempted to isolate yourself and spend too many hours online.

·        Make a list of personal triggers that spur your obsessive behaviors. Some people find that boredom, depression, anxiety, or loneliness drive them toward technology overuse. Becoming aware of your emotional triggers can be a powerful deterrent.

·        Explore hobbies, including sports and other off-line activities that you enjoy to replace the many hours that you have been spending with your technology.

·        If your technology use is interfering with your work or social life, consider consulting a

professional to find out if a psychological issue may be driving you to addictive behaviors.

·        Individual psychotherapy and family therapy can often be helpful in understanding the causes of behavior and devising healthier strategies for dealing with psychological conflicts.

·         Draw on local resources and support groups for help. Many 12-step programs have broad applications to different forms of addictive behavior, including technology addictions.

A key intervention strategy is getting help from others who have experienced the same or similar addictions and have learned to control them.

Kicking any habit is hard to do on your own.

Spending time with people you care about and who care about you will make it easier to return to healthier habits.