Expert: Stop Internet habits from becoming addictions by unplugging

Akia Randolph admits that she just might, perhaps, occasionally become a bit too wrapped up in social media.

A few weeks ago, for instance, when Randolph, a junior hospitality management major at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, fired up her Nook and cruised Facebook while preparing dinner.

“All of a sudden, I smell smoke,” recalls Randolph, 19, during a break at the UNLV Student Union. “I was like, ‘What is that smell?’ ”

It turned out to be the evening’s taco dinner going up in smoke, a victim of Randolph’s Facebook-induced neglect.

“I know that’s a problem, when I’m not paying attention,” Randolph admits with a rueful smile.

Overimmersion in the Internet, social media and technology isn’t uncommon. But, unlike Randolph, most of us are loath to admit it.

For most of us, the occasional gluttonous tech splurge is just embarrassing. For others, it can be the beginnings of an addiction.

Internet addiction is a relatively new area of study, but Dr. David Greenfield, director of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Conn., has been there from the start. In his practice, Greenfield, who also is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, treats people whose addictive use of the Internet has hurt their lives.

“The jury still is out on what is the best definition” of Internet addiction, Greenfield says, but a certain subset of the population clearly uses the Internet to the point “where it creates really negative consequences in one of the major spheres of their life.”

Relationships or marriage. Work. School. Health. Finances. All, Greenfield says, can be, and have been, damaged by Internet addiction.

“The vast majority of people who talk about ‘I’m addicted to my smartphone’ or whatever probably aren’t addicted to it,” Greenfield says. “They probably are abusing it or overusing it, but probably aren’t using it to the point where it’s interfering with their life or their health or their well-being, although, for some people, that is true.”

Thanks to smartphones and tablets, the Internet and its potential problems are available anywhere, anytime. For some people, the attractions of such 24/7 access can create the same sort of buzz as, say, a gambling addiction.

In a metaphor Nevadans would appreciate, Greenfield likens the Internet to “the world’s largest slot machine.”

“What that means is, every time you go online and search for something or you wait for a text or an email or a Twitter tweet or a Facebook update or something you shop for, or just checking email, you never know what you’re going to get and don’t know when you’re going to get it. It’s a variable and dynamic process that creates an intermittent and unpredictable level of reinforcement.”

Simon Gottschalk, a social psychologist and sociology professor at UNLV, says receiving, for example, a text from a friend can trigger “very positive emotions, and these emotions, of course, correspond to biochemical reactions.”

Most of us might go overboard once in a while but don’t become addicted to our technological devices and the Internet. So, Gottschalk says, “does the Internet cause addiction or is an addictive personality more likely to be addicted (to the Internet)? Or: If it’s not there, would they be more likely to be addicted to something else? It’s a chicken-and-egg question.”

However, Gottschalk says, younger people generally seem to be more anxious than baby boomers when they do not have access to mobile devices. People ages 25 and younger have grown up with technology, Greenfield says.

“They have a very different relationship to technology than I do. I’m in my late 50s, so I didn’t grow up with it,” he says. “This generation treats technology like we treated a toaster. It’s seamless. They’re right with it. They can’t imagine life without it. So it’s a lot harder for this generation, and in terms of the most intense therapy I do, the majority is in that age group. The 13 years old on up to the early 20s, that is my largest treatment group.”

Count Randolph as part of that demographic. She calls social networking her own technological Achilles heel.

Facebook? Twitter? “Oh, all of them,” she answers, laughing. “It’s kind of an issue right now. I’m constantly on it.”

She admits, “It happens often. I’m trying to be more aware about it.”

Cutting the digital umbilical cord — or at least scaling back tech use — can be particularly difficult for people whose jobs demand that they be perpetually plugged in. But, Greenfield says, having to use technology doesn’t mean that somebody is doomed to become addicted to it.

He likens it to being a bartender.

“You’re around alcohol all day long, but you don’t necessarily have to become an alcoholic,” he says. “Now, if you spend eight or 10 hours a day online because that’s your job, and you go home and have a normal life, relatively speaking, fine. If you’re not staying up until 3 in the morning online, then it’s not an issue. The issue is if it interferes with your life.”

Jeff Grace considers himself “very connected, for sure.” He’s president and CEO of NetEffect, a Las Vegas information technology service company, and spends much of his day fielding work-related emails, phone calls and messages.

How does Grace — who considers email his biggest potential tech trap — know when things are getting out of hand?

“Certainly my wife lets me know occasionally when I’m a little too connected,” he says. “I know if I’m going too far if I get a certain look from my wife on weekends or evenings.

“She understands I’m running a business and that it is demanding and you have to be very connected. But at some point you’ve got to set the cellphone down.”

Grace says he’ll sometimes remove his smartphone from his pocket and place it on the kitchen counter or, even, across the room, putting physical distance between himself and any online demands that might arise.

Basically, he says, “it’s a matter of setting (the phone) down and walking away.”

“It’s hard to do,” Grace adds. “I like technology. I’m running a business and I’m putting my heart and soul into it, so I always want to know what’s the latest and what’s going on. So it’s hard to set it down, but when I take a break from it, even if it’s simply for an hour, it feels really good.”

He adds: “I admit I don’t do it as often as I should. I certainly have room for improvement. No doubt.”

Does Jessica Kennedy ever get too wrapped up in technology? She laughs, answering that her roster of jobs includes teaching graphic design at Rancho High School, teaching continuing education courses — on smartphones, computers, graphic design — at UNLV, and working as a freelance graphic designer and writer.

So, Kennedy is more tech-involved than many people, and calls herself “totally addicted to it.”

“I freak out if I don’t have my phone on me, in my hand, or in my sight where I can reach it easily,” she says. “And if it’s on the other side of the room, it’s too far away.”

Kennedy admits to being “shocked that I’m so entrenched in it. And I would have to say that, because of the multiple hats I wear, I have to be deeply entrenched in it.”

However, Kennedy is certain that, if she wanted to, she could cut the digital umbilical cord immediately and cold turkey.

“If I’m going to be honest with you, I could quit it at any time because I’m a strong person and could do that,” she says. “But do I want to? No, and I don’t know why.”

Kennedy allows that she sometimes does feel overwhelmed and, even, “bitter and resentful when I have 80 people texting me when they need something from me.”

When job duties and assignments allow her to, “there are days when I’ll ignore everything,” she says, ignoring her phone and other devices for a day or two, just to decompress.

Greenfield says taking such a temporary vacation from the online world is a good idea for anybody who might be worried that they’ve become too technology-dependent.

“What we suggest is people set up tech-free days, where they agree to go a day without technology,” he says. ”Even once a week, so they know what it’s like to live without it.”

“Sometimes I fall into the rabbit hole, also,” Gottschalk says. “But when I need to write an article or a lecture, I completely log off of my email system, I don’t look at a cellphone, I shut down everything, because, let’s be frank, 90 percent of our email isn’t that important. The medium itself makes it seem like it’s urgent.”

But, he adds, “I think that one does not necessarily have to go cold turkey. Unplug everything and remember how things feel when you’re not online or on a cellphone. Just unplug. And I’m sure most people will realize nothing bad happens when we’re unplugged.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com.


The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction’s website (www.virtual-addiction.com) offers a variety of resources about Internet and tech addiction.

Among those resources are several quizzes created by Dr. David Greenfield, the center’s director. Here, courtesy of Greenfield, are questions from the site’s "Digital Distraction Test." (For more quizzes, visit the "Addiction and Tech Abuse Tests" link under "Resources.")

Answer "yes" or "no" to each question.

1. Do you find yourself spending more and more time online or on your digital devices (computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone) than you realize?

2. Do you find yourself mindlessly passing time on a regular basis by staring at your smartphone, tablet or computer even when there might be better or more productive things to do? And do you seem to lose track of time when on any of these devices?

3. Do you find yourself spending more time with "virtual friends" as opposed to real people nearby?

4. Has the amount of time you spend on your digital devices and the Internet been increasing?

5. Do you secretly wish you could be a little less wired or connected to your devices such as your smartphone, laptop, tablet, Internet, etc?

6. Do you sleep with your smartphone on under your pillow or next to your bed regularly?

7. Do you find yourself viewing and answering texts, tweets and emails at all hours of the day and night, even when it means interrupting other things you are doing?

8. Do you text, email, tweet or surf while driving or doing other similar activities that require your focused attention and concentration?

9. Do you feel your use of technology actually decreases your productivity at times?

10. Do you find yourself feeling somewhat ill at ease or uncomfortable when you accidentally leave your phone or other Internet digital device in the car or at home, if you have no service or if it is broken?

11. Do you feel reluctant to be without your smartphone or other digital devices, even for a short time; when you leave the house you always have your smartphone or other digital device with you?

12. When you eat meals, is your smartphone always part of the table place setting?

According to Greenfield, answering "yes" to more than three or four questions indicates that "you might benefit from going on a digital diet."