What Makes Technology so Addictive?
By Barbara McRae, MCC
Chances are that you’ve been purchasing gifts that include technology for loved ones. Maybe, it will be an iPad, iPod, Kindle, or the latest smart phone? Like it or not, technology is very much a part of not only your teenager’s life, but also yours!
Adults everywhere are logging on to the Web to read email, watch TV, or get their news from newspapers and magazines online. Many are using hand-held devices to receive messages while driving, eating lunch, or waiting in line. Kids find emailing too slow, so they’ve replaced it with texting (maybe you have too). Some people even refuse to go on vacation unless they can stay plugged in.
Why it’s Addicting
It’s no wonder parents worry that their kids are getting addicted to technology. I’ve asked myself “What IS so addictive about checking email, tweets, or text messages?” and you probably have, too.
One reason that behavioral psychologists offer is that it relates to “operant conditioning.” This theory is based on the premise that behavior is shaped by its consequences. Here’s how one can get hooked:
When you check your messages, you get both bad news (junk mail, spam, chain-letters) and good news (great joke, thank you note, positive response from a friend). Often you get several boring messages before you get one that thrills you. That consequence (or reward when you receive a great message) reinforces your desire to keep checking your messages.
You can never be sure in advance whether you’ll like the message(s) or not; so, you keep checking, and checking and checking for that fantastic message. Much like chronic gamblers, who keep going for that next lucky payoff; again bases on the built-in intermittent reward system.
Dopamine – the Pleasure Enhancer
You might need to wade through twenty messages before you find another good one that will activate your dopamine, the feel good “messenger” in your brain that allows you to feel pleasure. This feeling reinforces your future behavior. In this case, it’s continuing to check your messages, but it also applies to other less benign behaviors.
Interestingly, the experts believe that if all of your messages were positive, i.e. nothing unexpected happened, then checking your messages would lose its appeal. You wouldn’t get that feel-good surge through your brain. It would just have the same effect as taking a hot bath – a predictable pleasant experience.
While statistics indicate that girls are more likely to stay plugged in via instant messaging and social media sites, boys are drawn to virtual gaming (80%). While playing video games, dopamine is also released, causing the player to feel ecstatic and in control. When playing is combined with a gaming social network, enjoyment is intensified.
Given the above information, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that according to a study on the game Everquest, gamers logged on for an average of 22 hours per week; in some cases, it was as high as 80 hours!
When is it Really an Addiction?
Engaging in an activity that one finds enjoyable 2-3 hours per day can be energizing. But if spending time online or gaming prevents a person from completing work assignments or getting sufficient sleep, that’s a warning signal!
It could be an Internet addiction disorder IF
• Internet use is getting in the way of having a balanced life
• The person cannot cut back on Internet/gaming activity
• Longer time periods online are necessary to feel satiated
• Withdrawal attempts lead to anxiety, apathy, or depression
Help is Available
For mild situations, not an addiction yet but spending too much time on the Internet, learning to say “no” with the loving support of family could suffice. For more serious situations, coaching, therapy, or a 12-step program would be more effective. In severe cases, know that there are addiction treatment centers throughout the United States that now offer help for technology addictions.
To keep from sabotaging the help that you want to provide to your teenager, refer to this simple guideline: If you stay calm, you’re well situated to help. If you’re upset, you’re in the least position to cause the change you want to happen! Your conversation will be infinitely more effective when you can stay composed, no matter what.
Time to check my messages now … Smiles!
Barbara McRae, MCC
Teen Parenting Expert, Campus Calm
© Barbara McRae