Are you addicted to your iPhone and is it screwing up your life?

19th Mar 2010 | 12:40

Are you addicted to your iPhone and is it screwing up your life?

Gaming and mobile addiction explained by the experts

Life as an app-oholic

Do you reach for your iPhone first thing before giving your wife a good morning kiss? Do you spend more time looking at your shiny new 3GS in bed than reading one of the growing pile of great books next to you? Do you get more excited about new apps than you do about new albums?

I do. To my shame. My name is Adam. And I am an App-oholic.

I first developed signs of this impending addiction early last year, when I finally kowtowed and bought myself an iPhone 3G. At the time I wasn't entirely sure why I wanted one, other than thinking it would be useful to be able to get online now and then to use Google Maps. And to check my Gmail. And to play Super Monkey Ball, of course.

Soon enough I had, I thought, exhausted the fun to be had downloading the numerous free apps from the App Store, 99 per cent of which were either a complete waste of time or, at best, a fun diversion for a few minutes. Party trick gimmicks.

APP-OHOLIC: is the iphone the most addictive gadget yet?

APP-OHOLIC:Is the iPhone the most addictive gadget yet?

But then I installed the superb RSS reader NetNewsWire, which I use constantly for staying on top of technology and gaming news feeds for work. And then I started idly checking out Twitter via Tweetdeck…

A few weeks later I found myself having a heated conversation with a colleague in a pub about the relative merits of the new Tweetie (£1.79) over Tweetdeck (free, but not as good). By that point, I realised that I was already lost…

Gadget and gaming addiction

I have managed to devise a number of cunning coping strategies to manage my iPhone use (I switch it to silent in the cinema and I make sure I'm not obviously looking at it when my wife is directly addressing me), but gadget and gaming addiction really is no laughing matter.

Technology is making too many people more fearful and anxious than ever before, while increasing numbers of teenagers and young people spend way too much of their time sitting alone in their bedrooms playing videogames and updating Facebook, creating fun and cool online personas for themselves, at the expense of their real-life ones beyond the screens.

CONNECTIVITY disorder: staying hooked up to your network seems vital

CONNECTIVITY DISORDER:Do you suffer 'disconnect anxiety'?

TechRadar spoke with a number of experts in the areas of games, internet and mobile phone addiction to find out more about some of the key issues at stake.

"This is a psychological addition, which is the need to engage in an activity of some kind," according to Dr. Nigel Holt, Author and Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Bath Spa University. "It's a compulsion. I wouldn't be at all surprised if addiction to gadgets such at iPhones or Blackberries might not cause similar feelings as addictions to other things.

"Those addicted to gambling, for instance, show withdrawal just as do those addicted to smoking, so imagine how those addicted to gadgets must feel when they leave their iPhone at home by accident."

Holt thinks a major problem is that "gadgets are all around us now" likening this to "how someone addicted to smoking feels every time they see someone light up, or when they see things they associate with smoking, like matches, or ashtrays" which, in psychology, is called 'cue-reactivity' where something associated with the addiction makes us feel withdrawal from it.

Does new technology improve your life?

"The assumption that new technology ultimately improves the quality of daily life is not proven," argues Northampton Business School's Professor Nada Kakabadse, author of recent book Technology Overload: Explaining, Diagnosing and Dealing with Techno-Addiction. (Go here for a PDF download).

"Indeed there is increasing evidence that it destroys as many valuable customs as it supports," she adds. "Yes, new ICT enables businesses to communicate globally in seconds, but it also eats into valuable time in countless transactions with little benefit emerging."

TECHNO-ADDICT: people work harder to ensure they keep their jobs

TECHNO-ADDICT:People work harder to keep their jobs (pic courtesy: Kakabadse)

In a recent study, Kakabadse interviewed 360 knowledge workers from a variety of UK and US organisations and concluded that around two thirds suffered from technology overload, while one third exhibited 'techno addiction'. She highlighted the following signs of technology addiction to watch out for:

  • Over use of ICT or gadgets to the exclusion of other activities
  • Prolonged concentration on ICT-related activities, often ignoring warnings from others of excessive time spent online and
  • 'Connectivity disorder', involving checking for messages or sending trivial texts just to feel 'connected.'

On the flip side, many argue that technology allows us to be more productive and to multi-task better than ever before, yet Kakabadse sees dangerous "cognitive and emotional switching costs" incurred with this.

"Humans can only cope with only seven or so tasks simultaneously," she argues, "whereas electronic gadgets are limited only by their processor speed. Within such a context individuals are increasingly overloaded by a bombardment of communication."

Work-play boundary blurring

There is an increased blurring of the boundaries between using your gadgets for work, and using them for personal pleasure and play. There is also, as Kakabadse identifies in her book, "the parallel pressure to express oneself individually through technology – to make statements about status, or hold conversations which forge new friendships or sexual relationships."

The combination of persuasive marketing messages from the likes of Apple combined with peer pressure to not want to feel left out adds to the many pressures from work-based commitments - what Kakabadse refers to as "glorifying a 24/7 work and response pattern, especially via the internet, accelerated by the leadership of increasingly 'techno-savvy' executives who want greater efficiency from technology."

Or, put simply, fear of failure.

These are the pressures that lead to what is referred to as 'techno-stress' or 'Information Fatigue Syndrome' (IFS), "the extreme strain people feel when their personal space is increasingly invaded by ICT innovation. Peace and quiet is irrecoverable."

Kakabadse asks us one key question: "Where does the geekdom stop and the techno-addiction start?"

Stanford University iPhone study

Stanford University recently carried out some research into the phenomenon of iPhone addiction, in which Professor Tanya Luhrmann and her team of researchers interviewed 200 college students in a survey to find out more about their iPhone use and habits.

Somewhat worryingly, on a scale of one to five, where five is full blown addiction and one is not addicted at all, ten per cent of the respondents ranked themselves as a five, while 32 per cent who said they weren't completely addicted were worried that they soon may be.

ADDICTIVE behaviours: 1 in 5 said they considered themselves addicts

ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOURS:1 in 10 said they considered themselves addicts

Other telling figures from that survey show that 85 per cent use the iPhone as their watch, 89 per cent use it as an alarm clock, 75 per cent fall asleep with the phone next to them and 69 per cent were more likely to leave their wallet behind. 41 per cent said that losing their iPhone would be tragic and 30 per cent said it was a "doorway into the world."

Most intriguingly is the way in which the students talk of the affections they have for their iPhone, talking about the device as if is an extension of their own bodies. 9 per cent have patted the iPhone; 3 per cent don't let anybody touch their iPhone; 3 per cent have named their iPhone; 8 per cent thought their iPod was jealous of their iPhone. And so on.

Not an unhealthy addiction

What is slightly encouraging is the fact that Professor Luhrmann doesn't think that it is necessarily an unhealthy addiction, more the fact that the students just like their iPhones a lot (74 per cent of respondents thought said it made them feel 'cool').

Following the recent research, Luhrmann also told TechRadar that while "internet addiction is a new category in the American psychiatric nosology (DSM5) and that while people use technology in ways that are detrimental, she did not interview people in ways that would make that clear, and there is always a complex line between health and illness.

"Do people use iPhones and email in ways that are detrimental to face to face relationships? Sure, and our data support that. Does email lead to depression or psychosis? That seems unlikely. Does email make us unhappy? For sure, and we are just at the beginning of understanding this complex relationship and the way that technology changes our moods and minds."

Addiction clinics open in the UK

It's not just hardware though. A new specialist treatment centre to offer private therapy to patients suffering from addiction to videogames opened its doors in London this month, highlighting the growing (and highly controversial) issue of teenagers and young people becoming problematically dependent on gaming and other technology at the expense of their real lives beyond the screen.

Capio Nightingale Hospital is described as central London's only independent mental health hospital, and is launching a dedicated Young Person Technology Addiction Service, following a recent survey that claimed 63 per cent of 11-18 year olds felt addicted to the internet and many spending up to 10 hours a day using computer and videogames.

GAMING addiction: capio nightingale offers new treatment centre for problem gamers

GAMING ADDICTION:Capio Nightingale offers new treatment centre for problem gamers

"For young people who are developing so quickly both neurologically and physically, the risks [of internet addiction] are magnified with an increase in agitation, hyper-arousal, an inability to concentrate and, ultimately, depression," reads the press release issued to announce the opening of the new London facility.

The centre has coined the phrase 'screenagers' and has developed what it calls a "tri-partite programme which can be tailored to meet the patient's needs" ranging from intensive in-patient care to day care, group and individual therapy "to increase off-screen social activities and to develop strategies to cope with online problems, in particular issues around cyber bullying."

"Mental health services need to adapt quickly to the changing worlds that young people inhabit, and understand just how seriously their lives can be impaired by unregulated time online, on-screen or in-game," says Dr. Richard Graham, Lead Young Person's Technology Addiction Consultant at Capio Nightingale Hospital.

"We have found that many of the existing services fail to recognise the complexity of these situations, borrowing from older models of addiction and substance misuse to very limited effect."

Capio is not the first British treatment centre for gaming addiction, however. Broadway Lodge in Weston-Super-Mare was the first clinic in the UK to treat clients specifically suffering from addiction to videogames and online gaming. TechRadar spoke with Peter Smith, a counsellor who specialising in treatment for gaming addiction at the facility, to find out more about the work they do.

BROADWAY lodge: the uk's first gaming addiction specialists

BROADWAY LODGE:The UK's first gaming addiction specialists

While gamers and the games industry generally scoff at the very idea that the games they love to play and create could be harmful to a minority of users, Smith tells stories of family members "with really quite sad stories of young people who have been lost to them because of gaming… young people who had a lot of potential to do very well."

He tells the story of one particular patient who was a Cambridge graduate and a PhD student in microbiology, who, after finishing his studies, "just drifted home and was at home spending all of his time playing games… his mother was utterly distraught and so she contacted us."

"We also had a lady from Spain recently, who emailed to say she and her family were desperate for some help for her son, who would spend all day and well into the early hours of the morning playing games non-stop."

Smith notes that there are multiple problems that result from such addictive behaviours, including health issues ("there was one instance of a chap becoming anorexic as a result of not eating, which became secondary to playing the game"), relationship difficulties and, in worst cases, complete family breakdowns.

"So they don't eat round a table together, and it is not unusual for a mother to take food up to their child's room so they can continue gaming. There is also strong resistance by the gamer to go to family gatherings – weddings, birthdays, funerals and the like."

However, Smith is in no way in denial about the positive pleasures that games can give to teens and young people, in addition to the opportunities to make online friends when playing MMOs such as World Of Warcraft.

"Many, many people play games and get a lot of pleasure out of it. We don't want to demonise it. Games gave them an opportunity to succeed and feel confident and communicate in a language that gives them a kudos that normal socialising wouldn't," he says, though in a small minority of cases there is the possibility "that this can become a downward spiral..if someone has a bit of self-consciousness then games can fill or replace that gap."

"But because you are playing more games then you don't get the opportunity to improve that in real life, to the point where it becomes quite difficult for you to feel confident about meeting people face to face."

Recovery strategies

Capio Nightingale Hospital asks problem gamers and potential tech addicts an initial 10 questions to help identify technology addiction, while Northampton University's Professor Nada Kakabadse thinks that ICT addiction has, to date, been treated by policy makers as "a kind of elephant in the room – everyone sees it but nobody wants to acknowledge it.

"If society is truly concerned with quality of life, then the need for serious discussion concerning the impact of ICT on employee work practises and work-life balance is now critical," she argues, stressing that there is an urgent need for new laws and regulatory policies to deal with the consequences of techno-addiction.

Kakabadse warns that, should the courts not recognise addiction to work-related technology as a compensable form of employer or manufacturer neglicence, they soon, issuing the stark warning to companies that: "The only guarantee is that ICT addiction and techno-stress are on the increase. It's best to deal with them before they deal with you."

And as for personal use of your iPhone or your 'CrackBerry', she adds: "Just think before you click! Before you send that next batch of emails or rush to connect with all those others [online]. Is this volume necessary? Could you connect in a more socially uplifting way?"

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