Unplugging Virtual Addictions 

Look around a morning train and you’ll see a car full of people isolated in their own technological worlds, underscoring that with constant internet accessibility, the line between technological convenience and addiction seems harder and harder to define.

Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, has studied the subject since the 1990s after he noticed himself spending excessive amounts of time doing nothing online. “There wasn’t really much online at that time, but I would notice that I would eat up a lot of time on my computer,” he said. “That led me to believe that there was something psychoactive or mood-altering or addictive about the internet.”

What Greenfield found in his studies was that technology usage led to an increase of dopamine levels in the brain, a neurological “reward” typical to any type of addiction. As technology has progressed, making internet access more instantaneous, so has this dependency. “When I started, we were on dial-up modems when it was slow like you can’t even believe—they were barely functional. Then access speeds increased.” This advance has had a notable effect on internet dependency as it eases access to the addictive behavior.

The dawn of Wi-Fi and smartphones are the most notable contributors to this “ease of access,” which Greenfield noted is relevant to all types of addiction. “We know the ease of access to a substance or an addictive behavior increases the addictive potential that draws your behavior. And with tablets and smartphones, you have your internet portal with you all the time. There’s almost no threshold to cross.”

From a neurological level, the manner of addiction is similar to that of gambling due to the unpredictability of content you receive. “The internet is the world’s largest slot machine. Every time you go online, it doesn’t matter what you’re looking at, you don’t know what you’re going to get, when you’re going to get it and how good it’s going to be.” Greenfield explained that it’s very compelling to the brain to have this constant unknown because it elevates dopamine in a way that you can’t anticipate. That spike of dopamine occurs twice with smartphone notifications, both in the anticipation of the alert and then when viewing the content itself.

Greenfield believes most smartphone users are overusing their devices but said his studies show only about six percent of the population actually deals with a digital addiction. In these cases, addiction stems in a subset of the internet, such as social media, gaming or pornography. And like other addictions, it interferes with one’s personal and professional life beyond the point of slight distraction or inconvenience. Because treatment isn’t as simple as abstaining from using the internet, a nearly impossible feat in this age, addicts instead limit use to online areas that don’t trigger their addiction (staying away from social media, gaming or porn sites).

A recent trend around the country is “digital detox retreats,” which offer immersive programs that invite guests to unplug and participate in mindfulness activities without use of the internet. They can range from a relaxing afternoon at the spa to an entire weeklong retreat that relies on an appeal of the outdoors for entertainment.

Greenfield said these detox weekends can be a healthy way to reset and serve as a reminder to your nervous system that you don’t need the technology, but they alone aren’t a solution. Real change in one’s relationship with the digital world comes from a change in habits. “Once again, it’s all about ease of access. Even taking an hour or having your meals without your phone on the table or not sleeping with your phone next to your bed—anything you can do that changes that pattern and makes it a little more tolerable and more manageable is a good thing.”