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Technology Addiction: Technology Can Connect, but It Can Also Distort the Truth
By Marisa Markowitz, LMSW, CASAC-T

Technology addiction can be described as frequent and obsessive tech-related behavior—excessive engagement despite negative consequences to the user. When an individual’s relationship to technology becomes unhealthy and overreliance reaches a level of addiction, symptoms may include anxiety, depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, restlessness, and agitation when not engaged in tech-based behavior. They may prioritize technology use over other interests and may experience increased interpersonal conflict, social withdrawal, and distress when access to technology is limited.

Technology, and in particular social media, has made it easy to live behind the screen, with consequences for the developing mind—an inaccurate perception of others' true emotional states.

Social media is a great tool to share ideas, stories, and updates. Despite the widespread use of sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, there’s a genuine issue when individuals feel as though communication can be sustained solely online. While these sites can be highly entertaining, they can also project a fake image of reality. Is Sarah, for example, posting an image of herself skydiving because she's happy or because she's trying to get over a breakup? Posting is a sport for the voyeur and a guessing game about the story behind the story.

The Effect of Technology Use on Social Well-Being
Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle has written and spoken extensively about society’s collective relationship to technology. She suggests that we expect too much from technology and less from one another. With the ability to cultivate online connections, we can apply a certain amount of creative license to curate a perfect (or any desired) image. We can post, edit, delete, and update–which isn’t possible in regular, messy conversations. Turkle has found people to be more lonely and less able to hold conversations, opting to dip in and out of multiple online conversations simultaneously. Her latest work on empathy demonstrates that face-to-face conversations is crucial for developing empathy. In turbulent times, we look to friends for support. But if that support is in the form of a tweet, a post, an emoji, or even a well-meaning text, does it have the same effect as a warm hug? Is it not preferable to sit, side by side while your friend listens, validates, and provides unconditional positive regard?

Georgetown professor Cal Newport also tries to understand online communication and how problematic apps create addictive behaviors for users. He’s equally concerned that online communications are replacing normal face-to-face conversations. His approach is to cultivate an intentional use of apps, whether they be for social, educational, or practical means. Newport is careful to explain that the use of technology is not a hazardous or a poor substitute for regular interaction. On the contrary, technology can make everyday activities simpler, such as banking, learning, or planning. It’s when these apps become the default and when every activity is done online that the balance of online vs in-person activities becomes off-kilter. His digital detox plan calls for individuals to delete apps for a month and then slowly reintroduce them in a healthier and more deliberate manner. Like Turkle, Newport recognizes that technology is neither good nor bad; it’s a matter of moderation and self-awareness.

And it’s not just those who study technology misuse that are invested in helping those with technology addiction. Although it’s not listed in the DSM-5 as a mental disorder, and there are no drugs that “cure” technology addiction, clinical social workers, addiction counselors, and mental health professionals have the expertise to treat various forms of unhealthy behavior patterns and teach individuals skills they can use to counter an unproductive use of technology.

Cultivating Healthier Relationships to Technology
Interventions focus on individuals’ feelings before and after they engage in a behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and motivational enhancement therapy are modalities that focus on the specific feeling, thought, emotion, and urge associated with being “addicted” to one thing. For technology addiction, clients would be encouraged to identify the specific urges that arise when thinking about technology use, whether social media or other types of technology use.

DBT is effective for individuals who experience strong, intense feelings. A mental health professional may rely on DBT to help cultivate awareness when these urges boil up and redirect engagement from technology to another behavior. And by recognizing the timing, intensity, and duration of their urges, clients can turn to equally enjoyable exercises, such as taking a walk, spending time with friends, or playing a sport. By substituting one urge with another equally pleasurable urge, they may be able to step away from their problematic actions. With time and practice, individuals can learn to catch themselves from acting on thought or urge and engage in something different.

The Path Forward
Are tech-based relationships, social media platforms, and cell phone apps existential threats to the human condition? No. And is a world without technology a cure-all panacea? Certainly not. To think in binary terms, specifically in relation to technology, diminishes the intrinsic value of technology. The ability to interact, play, form opinions, and share ideas is something to be celebrated, not impugned. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that spending too much time online is not the wisest way to engage in the world. Understanding one's personal relationship to technology can provide insight into how to set healthy online habits. Life is meant to be savored, after all. Instead of posting, why not share those skydiving experiences with friends? It might be more fun, in some ways, a bit healthier for the soul.

— Marisa Markowitz, LMSW, CASAC-T, studies the relationship between technology and its adverse effects on mental health, particularly for vulnerable populations. She can be reached at Marisa@marisamarkowitz.com or 201-341-2619.