How to Tell If You Are Addicted to Technology

Some experts say excessive cell phone use is a sign of technology addiction. (Image credit: AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

They're not called "Crackberries" for nothing. Some people may be as addicted to Blackberries and other personal electronics as junkies are to drugs, according to John O'Neill, director of addictions services for the Menninger Clinic in Houston.

These over-wired people are so focused on their gadgets, they neglect relationships with other people, O'Neill said. Communication aids such as texting and e-mail may actually hamper our abilities to have more important face-to-face conversations.

But some experts object to labeling the techno-savvy as addicts without verifying that they meet the precise psychological definition of addiction.

* In 2006, psychiatrists at Stanford University surveyed people over the phone to try to determine how compulsively they used the Internet. They found a sizable portion of respondents displayed troubling tendencies, but could not determine whether their use merited a medical diagnosis and said more research needed to be done.

* A 2006 article in the journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care said the Internet can "promote addictive behaviors" and advocated formally recognizing its use as a possible addiction to improve treatment. 

* Another research paper, published in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology by a psychiatrist at Tel Aviv University, recommended that Internet addiction be regarded as an extreme disorder on par with gambling, sex addiction and kleptomania.

O'Neill admitted that there is not enough research to establish whether excessive technology use qualifies as addiction, but cited people who can’t sit through a movie without checking their cell phones or make it through dinner without peeking at their Blackberries as potential addicts.

"Technology can become more than a passing problem and more like an addiction," he told LiveScience. He listed some danger signs: "You become irritable when you can't use it. The Internet goes down and you lose your mind. You start to hide your use."

He said he can see corollaries between drug and alcohol addiction and the way some people use technology.

But some experts object to calling any excessive behavior "addiction."

"People use the term 'addiction' pretty indiscriminately, without considering the formal criteria that need to be met," said Robert A. Zucker, director of the Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan.

He said patients must display certain behaviors including craving, compulsive use, neglecting other responsibilities, withdrawal when the addictive object is not available, and other habits to be considered addicts.

"I am not aware of any work that has formally examined whether persons who make heavy use of cell phones, Blackberries and the like meet these criteria, but until that happens, I remain skeptical of the characterization," Zucker said. "It is trendy but not scientific."

Whether or not it qualifies as addiction, O'Neill said, our all-consuming relationships with technology are getting in the way of more important relationships — with people.

"I believe that technology has benefited us greatly," O'Neill said, "but my concern is that many of us have taken it too far, and it's become a substitute for those necessary face to face conversations."

Some experts agree that people who are over-wired may experience similar brain processes as people who are addicted to other things, such as drugs.

Eugene Samoza, director of the Addiction Research Center at the University of Cincinnati, said that addiction hijacks the brain's natural reward center, the nucleus accumbens. This center rewards humans for acquiring things they need biologically, such as sex and food, by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness.

"If it causes a release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, it acts like addiction," Samoza said. "That’s true of lots of things that people end up liking to do. So basically I think probably one could become addicted to technology."

But even if you are a techno-junkie, it is possible to change, O'Neill said.

"The first thing to do is take a long, hard look at how you are using technologies, and then to start to set some limits," he said. "You have to take off a couple hours and make those hours important enough that you don't allow yourself to be interrupted. I think we should have certain rules. We don’t break up, fire people or break traumatic news to people via e-mail or text message." 

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.