I am a millennial.
As such, I am allegedly fluent in technology, a master of social media, and breathlessly capable of multitasking at any given moment.
Dutifully, I check my Instagram every few minutes. I glimpse a red dot underneath the heart icon and my own heart leaps. On Facebook, those red flag notifications remind me that I am truly, deeply loved.
On Memorial Day weekend, I go camping with friends. Two miles up the trailhead, I rummage for my phone. I cannot find it. I throw chapstick, headlamps, and trail mix on the ground and stamp my feet.
How could I have been so stupid as to lose this precious piece of metal in the wilderness? What will happen if I receive a text? A call? An…email?
When I do find my mobile device—in the car—I perform the standard scroll through social media, messaging apps, and the news. Nevermind the fact that I have just waltzed through trees and wilderness.
This is the scroll I perform on work breaks. It is the “conversation” I engage in when I’m tired of staring at my computer. It is what keeps my thumbs happy and satisfied.
It’s like a heartbeat.
This is a common refrain for millennials and non-millennials alike. Jump aboard any search engine and you will find scores of articles about this digital age, our dependency on technology, and the tech that is to come.
In most cases, discussions about technology dependencies are tongue-in-cheek. They are shame-faced admissions of what is, in the end, deemed an inevitable reality.
Nonetheless, technology is sprouting all around us. We necessarily craft relationships with pieces of metal and lengths of wire, as they are the tools and means many of us rely on to communicate, perform, and survive.
But what is the nature of that relationship, truly? I set about to answer this question a few weeks ago, after the phone-in-the-wilderness incident.
I encountered some intriguing–and terrifying–results.
Technology Dependency as Addiction
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”
An individual “pathologically pursue[s] reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Addiction itself is characterized by cravings, dysfunctional emotional responses, and an inability to abstain from certain behaviors.
The definition continues, examining what addiction does to our neurological and psychological makeup.
So, can we classify a technology dependency as an addiction?
To answer this question, I used my phone as a test subject. I analyzed my usage of this device during any given day.
In general, I “check” my phone immediately upon waking up. Throughout the morning, as I prepare for work, I keep it close by, inspecting news, emails, and other communications.
At work itself, I keep my phone on my desk in close reach. On breaks, I perform the “social scroll” and maybe make a few calls. After work, my phone stays in the cup holder as I drive, available for a quick check when I pause at stoplights.
If I go for a run, I may use my phone to listen to music. It hovers next to my cutting board as I chop vegetables for dinner. At night, it stays on the bedside table—in case of emergencies.
After performing this exercise, I replaced “my phone” with the concept of alcohol or another addictive substance.
I consume alcohol immediately upon waking up. I keep it on hand as I prepare for work. On breaks, I take a drink. I sip some alcohol while waiting at stoplights on my way home from work. I drink before, after, and while exercising. I consume alcohol before bed.
As you can imagine, this gave me a world of pause. Pathological pursuits, brain reward, and memory dysfunction aside, my exercise suggested highly–if not life-threatening–addictive behavior.
My further explorations of my compulsion to “check” my phone throughout the day, particularly during periods of boredom or inactivity, my fear of missing out on social media notifications, and my emotional response to digital communications all supported my conclusion.
I am here to state that my name is Kate, and I am a technology addict.
Appalled by the results of my quick study, I started brainstorming next steps. I also posed a self-rebuttal.
We need technology in this digital age. My phone is a device that connects me with the people I love. It is a vital tool in work performance and engagement with world events.
I could not derive a sufficient response to this rebuttal. I decided I could at least initiate a “recovery” process to see if the results generate any impact.
Many individuals navigating substance addiction must undergo medical detox, a process that enables their systems to safely release chemical dependency. I did the same thing, completely eliminating technology in my life for three days.
I notified friends and family members beforehand, then shut my phone in a box. I turned off my computer. I unplugged the television.
The world went still.
I found myself encountering larger, vaster silences than I had ever experienced. I waited at the checkout counter at my grocery store and was aware of my hands.
I felt a new intention behind my ability to connect with people. I was more vocal. I read some books and sat on my porch. I said hello to passersby.
Most importantly, I spent time outside.
I also felt an anxiety forming. What was happening out there? What was going on in the world of electrical outlets, networks, and events?
The anxiety worsened. By the time the third day rolled around, I was terrified and relieved to re-plug. I performed my social scroll with renewed interest and despair.
But my detox was not in vain. I noticed a small pocket of awareness. If I was in a rehabilitation center, now would be the time when I really began to converse with my counselors, peers, and mentors.
This gave me confidence–I was recovering.
Awareness & Reintegration
With technology back in my life, I took a meditative principle and applied it to every encounter I had with devices.
I observed my emotions, thoughts, and reactions to these encounters, and did this without passing judgment. Here is what I noticed right away.
Over the next few days, I also noted the emotions I experienced when engaging with devices. These included
anxiety, curiosity, jealousy, fatigue, anger, disappointment, joy, and intrigue.
Interestingly, the behavioral symptoms of drug withdrawal are commonly
agitation, crying, excitability, irritability, or self-harm.
I also paid attention to my physical well-being. In the days in which I had “detoxed” from electronics, I had exercised more, slept longer, and felt energized.
Following my detox, with my return to technology, I experienced the following symptoms in no particular order:
migraines, restlessness, fatigue, food cravings, sleep issues
This is also in line with common withdrawal symptoms. How was this possible?
It was simple. I was withdrawing from technology even when I was regularly engaging with it. What’s more, I kept returning to my devices to try to alleviate these symptoms, finding hope in Instagram, frantically responding to pings, notifications, and vibrations.
I was perpetuating my own addictive cycle.
It was time to build a new relationship.
A New Intention
My process was simple. I decided to rewrite my engagement with technology.
I began by deactivating all of my social media accounts. I combated inevitable excuses with logic. (I.e., You can still communicate with international friends using WhatsApp).
I replaced screen time with pen and paper time as much as possible.
I chose to call friends and family members rather than text.
I talked about my relationship with electronics.
I replaced every unhelpful app on my phone with one that promotes mindfulness, such as the Meditation Timer.
I got rid of our television and purchased blue-light reduction glasses for required screen time.
I spent as much time outside as I did on my computer.
I placed my phone downstairs during the night and kept it powered off. I turned it on airplane mode during working hours.
After all of this, I realized one thing:
It felt good.
Life should always be like this.
In a few weeks, my relationships felt more robust. I was more productive at work. I was writing more than ever, in creative and exploratory ways.
I slept well, I ate better…You get the picture.
Living in a Digital Age
My current relationship with technology is a distant one. As a writer, I must turn to my computer at some point to complete assignments and engage with my craft.
But I also have recast my perspective of technology. It is now, to me, purely a tool to accomplish tasks or achieve higher states of mindfulness. Communication is possible through other channels, if chosen.
What is more, little pieces of intelligent metal do not have to instigate painful or difficult emotional responses. In other ways, I do not have to maintain an addiction to devices that fundamentally do not promote or enhance my well-being.
I am not claiming that I’ve eradicated my dependency. But I am stating that it is becoming increasingly urgent to change our awareness. Observation and knowing enable intentional change.
And intentional change can shift the world.