Besieged by the constant pings, rings, pops and beeps of his electronic devices, Simon Stanley goes offline for 72 hours and looks at the 21st-century phenomenon of technology addiction. Photo by Vinh Dao.
“Shall we call the police?” my friend Karen asked, receiver in one hand and a coin in the other.
“And tell them what?” I replied. “We have no idea where we are, and no idea where we’re going. Do you even know the name of the village we’re staying in?”
It was 1995, we were on a family cycling holiday in the countryside, Karen and I had taken a wrong turn, and we were lost. Very lost. Neither we nor our families had mobile phones back then and it wasn’t until late that evening, with the help of a friendly hiker with a map, that we managed to get back to our campsite and to our panic-stricken parents.
The technology we all carry with us today, be it a smartphone, a tablet, or a hover-board, has undoubtedly made the world a safer, smarter and more connected place. But rather than supplementing or streamlining our lives as the smartphone revolution once promised, the resulting ’anywhere, anytime’ nature of the Internet today has led us to an era where addiction has crept into mankind’s relationship with technology. Social media receives most of the blame (and media attention) for this 21st-century affliction, though it’s not without reason.
Whether you’re using Facebook to check-in to funky bars and chic restaurants to show your friends just how funky and chic you are, or checking up on the movements of those same friends to assess their lives by comparison, social media is a platform that satiates various human urges, both modern and primordial, for good and for bad.
• As an ego booster – Whether we like to admit it or not, we love talking about ourselves and what we are doing/wearing/eating.
• To feed our natural voyeuristic urges – We also love to see what other people are doing/wearing/eating and make comparisons to make ourselves feel better (or worse).
• To maintain contact with friends and family – In our increasingly globalised society, Facebook et al can help maintain important connections with friends and family.
• To rank and compare our likeability – “How many friends do you have?” may have been a popular question in pre-school, but judging our own (and our friends’) popularity is something we never stop doing. Facebook friends, Twitter followers, blog subscribers; they all offer actual numbers to ‘answer’ this conundrum.
• To nurture our insecurity – We can all feel lost and alone at times, and posting details of our woes, and then receiving numerous messages of support, can be deeply comforting. Troubles occur, however, when the virtual world becomes the main source of support.
• To stay ‘in the loop’ – No one likes being left behind or left out, but the infinite barrage of information can leave some unable to be away from their phone or their laptop for even a few minutes. Obsessive compulsive behaviour can lead to anxiety as this singular object takes on more than just its intended meaning.
Addiction can extend beyond the realms of social media. Whether it’s pornography, gaming, shopping or simply looking at cats and cucumbers, excessive use can be detrimental to other areas of life such as relationships, work, our finances and even our physical health.
Dr Brent Conrad, Clinical Psychologist and founder of self-help website TechAddiciton.ca, explains that, like substance addiction, be it drugs, alcohol or caffeine, the greater levels of Internet consumption, the more will be required to produce the same levels of satisfaction. It’s something of a self-perpetuating condition as people strive for even more likes, even more friends and, ultimately, even more recognition of their existence.
“As a general rule of thumb,” he says, “if a person repeatedly goes online to avoid real-world responsibilities or difficulties, and this avoidance creates even more problems in their life, this may suggest the presence of an addiction to the Internet.”
While several online tests suggested that I wasn’t ‘addicted’, the day-long chorus of pings and beeps from my three Apple devices had raised my heart rate on more than one occasion, and flitting between websites, YouTube, messages and social media often sends me into a downward spiral of counter-productive anxiety.
With three devices powered off and a luxury hotel room at my disposal for the long weekend in early September, I quickly saw that my ‘reliance’ on them was bordering on obsessive. Only after some cocktails and a dip in the pool was my mind able to forget them completely. Can work emails wait until Monday? Yes. In the unlikely event that there’s a family emergency in the UK, can I do anything about it from here? No.
What could possibly happen, what could go wrong, what ground-breaking news might I miss out on by remaining ‘unplugged’ for 72 hours? It turns out, not much. No one died, no one gave birth, no one spent their weekend doing/eating/thinking anything that I (or anyone) really needed to know about.
As Sunday evening drew to a close, I realised how much calmer I had been since the detox began. The small lump of plastic was no longer this ticking time-bomb of anxiety in my pocket, threatening to beep or buzz at any given moment. No. I was back in the old days, enjoying the moment (not photographing it), taking pleasure in a novel, a cocktail, my breakfast. Maybe next weekend we’ll do the same, rent bikes, go get lost somewhere…
To assess your own relationship with the Internet, visit virtual-addiction.com, to access several tests covering addiction, digital distractions and pornography, as well as a 13-point checklist to spot warning signs in a friend or loved one.
FIVE WAYS TO BREAK THE SMARTPHONE HABIT
1 – Turn off notifications – You really don’t need to know that Martin from that school you once went to, in that town you once lived in, has just checked in to Costa Coffee, nor that he is ‘feeling thankful’ for his caramel latte, so turn it off. #goodbyemartin
2 – Track it – Available for Apple devices, Moment, by Kevin Holesh, is an intuitive app designed to track your iPhone or iPad usage each day. Limits can be set and you can even force yourself off your device when you exceed them.
3 – Beds are for sleeping – Set the rule, no electronic devices in the bedroom (well, maybe some). Screen-time before bed-time can cause sleeplessness and interfere with… relationships.
4 – Ditch the apps – The simplicity of one-click access can be too tempting. Force yourself to take the long route into your social media sites and you may give up before you’ve even begun.
5 – Catch it while they’re young – iPads are an endless source of entertainment for younglings, but are you setting them up for a lifetime of tech addiction? Apps like OurPact allow parents to remotely limit their kids’ screen time by duration and/or time of day, while also blocking or allowing access to specific websites and applications.