Screen time – How much is too much? How exactly do we know?
The constant use of technology and the internet has quickly become normalized in our society – young children are often glued to their tablets, watching cartoons or playing games; teenagers are fixated on their phones, texting friends or refreshing their social medias; and even business-minded adults will find themselves frequenting their email or LinkedIn, using any nearby device to do so. This non-stop screen-use begs the question: are we developing an addiction to technology?
An addiction is described as a condition where people engage in a behaviour that provides rewarding effects as an incentive, despite negative consequences. In this case, an example of internet addiction may be that the individual is constantly accessing social media websites at work, even though they are aware that they should not be.
So, what is behind getting hooked on screens? There is no single explanation as to what causes this. One theory is that the brain releases dopamine and gives people a small ‘high’ when they use the internet. This pleasurable experience motivates people to continue using the internet. The continued behaviour may then lead to a dependency over time; hooking the user to their screen.
It has also been suggested that individuals who experience depression or anxiety may turn to the internet to ‘self-medicate’. For some people this may be similar to those who turn to drugs or alcohol. Additionally, people who are shy, or experience social awkwardness or discomfort may turn to the internet to seek out comfort or belonging. The anonymity of the internet allows them to experience social interaction with others on chat rooms or social media platforms, without the need of interacting with another face-to-face.
Some examples of being hooked on the internet include:
Using the internet compulsively
Using the internet to escape real life
Constantly being preoccupied with being online
Lying or hiding the extent of time spent online
Feelings of guilt
Feelings of euphoria when using the internet
Having no sense of time when on the device or watching screens
Psychological symptoms of having an internet addiction include:
Higher stress/aggression - Time spent indoors being hooked on screens reduces time spent outdoors, which can lower stress and reduce aggression.
Tiredness – time spent being hooked on your screen reduces sleep times; sleep deprivation affects mood, which leads to higher irritability.
Our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time
Our ability to convert short term memories into long term memories
Loneliness/ smaller support system – time spent online reduces time spent connecting with another face to face
Lower self-confidence/ esteem – spending too much time on social
media/ online may led to comparisons with others/ social media “role models”
Physical symptoms of having an internet addiction include:
But how do we know if we are experiencing issues with this? It is helpful to assess whether screen-use interferes with our lives. Considering asking yourself:
Am I spending more time interacting online than with others face-to-face?
Is my technology-use disrupting my personal relationships, work life, finances, or education?
If you answered yes, you may be developing a problem with internet or technology-use.
It is important to first recognise and measure what is going on for you, and then to regulate and manage how you are responding in situations where you are using screens. A practical example of this is, a friend of mine, (let’s call him Mike), noticed that some of his friends, as well as his partner, were saying that he always had his head in his screen. Around the same time, he noticed that one of his friends rarely used his phone and even said that he wanted to buy an ‘old-school’ phone, with no internet or touch screen, so that he could go back to simply talking on the phone when he needed.
Mike did the following:
Measure - he started to measure how much he was using his phone, as well as gauging what he did with his life without his phone.
Realisation - he quickly realized that there were very few parts of his life that he did not have his phone with him; in many situations, where he would usually talk with people, he was checking his phone as a default.
Decide & change - Mike then decided to make changes: he stopped taking his phone with him to as many events; he stopped taking the screen with him to bed and to meetings; and when he caught up with friends, he would turn his phone off or leave it in his bag.
Regulate – Mike practiced noticing when he was defaulting to his phone and instead tried to choose to do other things.
Reflect – Mike then reflected on the deeper reasons that may have been behind his phone-use. For example, it was anxiety behind his regular checking on his email.
Many people do a great job of making changes when they realise that they need to. However, there are when it is a good idea to get some support from a professional who can help you to recognise and to change similar issues.
As internet addiction is a relatively new concept, there is minimal research on how effective therapies are at treating it. Nonetheless, these treatments may still assist in relieving some of the addiction symptoms. With all forms of therapies, the first step in treatment is the recognition that a problem exists. Following on from this, treatment for internet addiction tends to focus on cognitive-behavioural and interpersonal psychotherapy techniques. These therapies aid the individual by addressing the underlying psycho-social issues that the addict may face (e.g. social phobia, mood disorders, marital dissatisfaction etc.) and moderate their use and time on the internet. Time management strategies are also discussed to help the client moderate their use and time on the internet. This may be aided by helping the client discuss alternative forms of activities that would interest them (e.g. hobbies or exercise programs).
Interpersonal psychotherapy techniques may also aid individuals who experience social awkwardness or have limited support systems. For example, individuals who turn to the internet for virtual relationships as a substitute for the lack of real-life connection with another. This form of therapy focuses on improving the individual’s interpersonal functioning. For example, encouragement of affect, role playing to discuss new ways of interacting with other and addressing interpersonal deficits.
For now, some practical tips are:
Limit your computer time
Call people instead of texting or emailing
Finding alternative activities so that your spare time is not spent exclusively on screens, such as:
Setting up a plan for when you begin to use the internet
Ask your friends or family for support in reminding you when you have been using the internet for a long time
Consider the amount of money you will spend on electrical, internet or computer bills when using the internet
If you require further help with an experience mental health professional, please do not hesitate in contacting your GP or a qualified psychologist. They may assist in developing a strategy that can aid you with this disorder.
Editor’s Note: Internet addiction disorder is not listed in the mental health professional’s handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM IV), as some researchers still question whether excessive internet use would be considered an addiction or an obsessive-compulsive or impulse-control disorder.
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Griffiths, M. "Psychology of Computer Use: XLIII. Some Comments on 'Addictive Use of the Internet' by Young." Psychological Reports 80 (1997): 81-81
Pies, R. (2009). Should DSM-V Designate "Internet Addiction" a Mental Disorder?. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 6(2), 31-7.
Young, K.S (1998b). Caught in the Net: How to recognize the signs of Internet addiction and a winning strategy for recovery. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.