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Handheld addiction getting out of hand? Here’s what to do Add to ...

When people come to the Center For Counseling and Health Resources in Seattle to seek treatment for mental health issues, chemical dependency, and eating disorders, one of the first steps is for them to hand over their smartphones and other electronic devices, which are put in a safe to which access is denied. In recent years, Gregory Jantz, the psychologist who runs the facility, has noted that patients have more and more to disconnect – and are increasingly dependent on those gadgets. “People may come with a presenting issue such as depression, but behind it are other addictions, including to their screens,” he notes in an interview.

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That observation led him to write his latest in a slew of books on psychological disorders, Hooked: The pitfalls of media, technology, and social networking. The cover has a picture of a fish with a hook through its mouth, looking highly distressed, and that fish may be you.

We are, he says, technologically tethered, living in a multitasking culture in which we believe we can have it all – and do it all. He knows the feeling; he’s susceptible himself. But he points out that “while trying to keep up with technology, to do it all and have it all, we end up resentful, stressed out, overstimulated, and exhausted. The very things we thought were supposed to make our lives easier have turned it into a nightmare.” Brain images of overstimulated brains – you, at work, perhaps – resemble a brain on cocaine. “We need to recognize this and see if we can pull out. There are people who need professional attention,” he says.

But we don’t seek professional advice. Instead, we seek another device, he notes, believing it will make everything better. In an era of instant downloads, we expect everything to be quick, and become frustrated when it isn’t. “Our expectations have become warped,” he says. “I now routinely expect the instantaneous, the near miraculous, all as a mundane part of my day. I expect there to be zero issues when I log in to my computer. I expect to have full bars on my cellphone. I expect to log in to my favourite websites without a hitch. When this doesn’t happen, I can feel anxious, resentful, and angry. All of this stuff is supposed to work when I want and how I want. And quickly. After all, I pay for it. After all, I’m in control.”

He has some advice for you. But first, your children. He says when brains become overstimulated in childhood, that can set the individual up for future addictive behaviours. So regulate the amount of time your children are on their electronic devices, and what they do in that time. His two children, aged 9 and 12, have to put their phones in the chargers in the kitchen by 8 p.m. They’re also not allowed to text while going to school.

You may want to consider similar rules to address your own activity. To determine if you’re hooked, start a log of your electronic activity, marking down what each device costs, and how much time you spend on it daily and weekly. Consider what you have reduced or eliminated in your life, in order to make room for your technological time. Beside each of the activities on the list, mark with a plus or negative sign whether the situation was helpful or negative. “Is it productive? Or are you literally losing money? Are you wasting your employer’s time? Is use of technology compromising your integrity?” he asks.

Now set aside all technology for a day, and see how you fare. What symptoms do you note? Do you sense anger, fear, or guilt? Do you initiate other addictive behaviours, such as eating a lot because you are anxious at not being online? Do you have trouble communicating with people beyond your electronic device?

He also suggests you evaluate your relationships, to see if live ones are being pushed aside for virtual connections. Here are some questions he offers in the book:

  • What are you doing online?
  • How are you connecting to others?
  • What is the content of that connection?
  • Would you be willing for your spouse or members of your family to view all of your online activities and content?
  • What emotional needs are being met through these online relationships?
  • How would you feel if you were unable to connect online for a day? A week? A month?
  • How many non-family online relationships do you maintain?
  • Of those relationships, how many do you keep strictly online – meaning you don’t talk or visit but only connect online?
  • As you evaluate the content of your online relationships or activities, are there any that pose a threat or provide competition to your real-life relationships?
  • Are you willing, within the next week, to modify, limit, or sever any online relationship or activity that poses such a threat?
  • If so, what is your step-by-step action plan for doing that?
  • If you’re not willing, what is holding you back? Be specific. Are you willing to seek professional help to overcome this barrier?

“Though I love my computer, I wouldn’t trade a single relationship for it. That goes for my cellphone too. If I was given an ultimatum, I know where I’d stand,” he says.

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