[image by David R. Carroll]

Do you remember what life was like before your cell phone, or before you had an internet connection in your house? It seems like such a long time ago. We even wonder at times how we could have lived life without them. The scary thing is that it wasn’t that long ago, yet in several short years these technological tools have rewired the way we interact, communicate and relate.

I sent my first email message in college, probably around January of 1994. It was so slow going through at the time that it didn’t even really seem worth sending another. I bought my first cell phone in 1998. I think it had only like 150 minutes per month on it which was enough because there were very few people I could call at that time who had a cell phone. In 2005 I put internet in our new house after we got married, which was really the first time I had had internet in my home before. Now I wonder how I got anything done. These personal discoveries encompass a time of around the last 4—15 years, yet at 34 I sometimes wonder how I lived without them.

What at one point were things that I felt like I could not live without, I’ve been contemplating if they are worth living with? Or if I even tried to live without them, would that even be possible. You see, I’m starting to wonder if I’m addicted to my technology. I’m not the first to wonder this question but I have been thinking about it a lot more this week as news on the opening of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program near Seattle, WA has been widely discussed online. Ben Parr wrote an article on Mashable where he stated:

“It’s getting tougher and tougher to argue that there is no such thing as Internet Addiction Disorder, especially if you watched the CNN video above. The sad truth is that it’s possible to become addicted to just about anything, and that the web (and World of Warcraft) has sucked many people in so deep that they ignore social interactions and forget real-world obligations.

Does a rehab center for extreme cases make sense? Yes, especially if reSTART can provide scientific proof of success in breaking the addictions of its patients. Still, rehab doesn’t work for all drug addicts, and it probably won’t work for all Internet addicts. And unlike drug addiction, you can’t simply avoid and abstain from using the web; it’s too central to our economy, our work, our education, and our lives to be ignored.”

In case you were curious, here are the “signs and symptoms” of technology addiction:
Here is what to look for (3-4 yes responses suggest abuse; 5 or more suggest addiction)
Increasing amounts of time spent on computer and internet activities

  • Failed attempts to control behavior
  • Heightened sense of euphoria while involved in computer and internet activities
  • Craving more time on the computer and internet
  • Neglecting friends and family
  • Feeling restless when not engaged in the activity
  • Being dishonest with others
  • Computer use interfering with job/school performance
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious, or depressed as a result of behavior
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Physical changes such as weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Withdrawing from other pleasurable activities

And if you still aren’t sure, you can take the Are you addicted? survey.

Working With Addicts
For about a year in 2006 and 2007 I spent time working with addicts at a community mental health clinic in Los Angeles. The addictions were primarily related to substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) and I did everything that I could do to better understand the world of addictions. I took classes, I went to some Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous groups, and I co-facilitated a 12 Steps group for 9 months a group that was mandatory for individuals if they wanted to stay out of jail. From that time a few of observations have really stuck out to me in regards to addiction:

  1. Compulsions
  2. Rationalizing behavior/choices
  3. Re-arranges, transforms relationships

We all seem to be quite comfortable referring to addicts in the context of alcohol, drugs, pornography, eating, etc, but I’ve noticed a general resistance to the idea that we might be addicted to our technology. In fact, many I have talked to and have read comments by seem to think it as almost laughable.  Like it is a benign problem with no real-life implications.  But the three factors that stuck out to me in working with substance abuse addictions are some of the same I’m seeing in people that I would consider technologically addicted.

Compulsions: feeling the need to check the phone first thing in the morning or before bed at night; scrolling through Twitter/Facebook constantly, even while with family or at dinner; hopping on the internet to check only one thing and three hours have passed.

Rationalizing: justifying that the constant checking of emails is important for work; telling yourself you have to get a blog post out there because the community of readers is expecting it ; defending yourself when others point out obvious abuses of technology–children and spouses are particularly great at this unless they are addicted too.

Re-Arranges/Transforms relationships: finding yourself not fully engaged with your friends and family; checking your phone constantly even while playing with your kids; checking the phone while at dinner with your spouse or significant other; seeing your children model your behavior such as playing on the cell or wanting to always be on the computer.  This may not seem like a big deal, but your behavior is helping those you relate to re-program how they interact with you.

If any of these things sound familiar, then you are definitely not alone…and you definitely might need to re-evaluate how technology is shaping you.

Technology Is Not Neutral
One of the biggest revelations in regards to technology has come from my friend John Dyer who is the web developer for Dallas Seminary, gifted coder and soon to be the author of a book on the subject of technology and theology.  At the ECHO conference John had a seminar titled Using Technology without Technology Using You. John’s main premise was that technology is not neutral. It can be both good and bad. But ultimately the use of technology is not neutral in that it transforms the user in some way. John gave the example of working with a shovel (a primitive technological tool). The shovel can be put to good use (church planting, building a home, etc.) and it can be put to bad use (killing someone, burying the body, etc.). But in either case it transforms the user in the form of blisters/calluses on the hand. The same is true of technology, whether you use it for good or bad, it still transforms you in some way when you use it.

So the question we all need to ask ourselves is, how is the technology and the tools we are using transforms us? And how does our use of technology transform those we relate to?

I love technology. I love blogging, I love Facebook, I love Twitter. They are not bad, but I am lying to myself if I claim they have not transformed me in both good and bad ways. Twitter has connected me to amazing people, but it has also inhibited my ability to unplug, focus and not seek constant affirmation online, as if my retweet count and number of followers is some justification of my identity.  My blogging has brought me some awesome opportunities and interactions, but it has also kept me up late hours, often avoiding hangout time with my wife, and often going to bed hours after her to finish a post I feel compulsed to write. Facebook is great and I love seeing what my friends are up to, but it has also weakened by ability to focus on the immediate people around me, rather seeking to please those I’m not even in immediate relationship with.

Like Rats in a Cage
Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology from the University of Michigan has been doing research on the brain and how it experiences pleasure. In an amazing and scary article in Slate magazine, Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous, he says the following:

“That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders “a panting appetite,” Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

If humans are seeking machines, we’ve now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes of driving two indoor cats crazy by flicking a laser pointer around the room. They wouldn’t stop stalking and pouncing on this ungraspable dot of light—their dopamine system pumping. She writes that no wild cat would indulge in such useless behavior: “A cat wants to catch the mouse, not chase it in circles forever.” She says “mindless chasing” makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs “because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior.” As we chase after flickering bits of information, it’s a salutary warning.”