You wake up, your eyes still closed, and pat around the mattress until you find your phone. It rests beside your head, beaming with notifications. You remain lying down for a few more minutes and begin scrolling, shaking your phone a few times with mild annoyance to force the screen to align with the way you're positioned. Before your feet have even touched the ground, you've already scanned the news, marked priority emails, and checked the weather. You slowly get out of bed and look over at your partner. Too busy playing Candy Crush, he barely acknowledges you.
Social media and smartphones have irreversibly changed the landscape of human connection and fundamentally redefined how people interact with one another. Eighty percent of users check their phones within fifteen minutes of waking up, according to a 2013 study sponsored by Facebook. The same study also found that the average user checks their mobile device every six minutes. Although striking, these statistics are far from extraordinary.
We often joke that we are "addicted" to our phones, but imagine becoming so devoted that you find yourself checking into rehab.
Dr. Hilarie Cash is the Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of the reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability, a center offering rehab and recovery services for those with tech, gaming, and internet addictions. Cash says people can get "high" from technology use, and they may also experience withdrawal and other symptoms of addiction. But to her, the way to identify an addiction is through asking: "Are there negative consequences to your use? And if so, do you continue in spite of those negative consequences?" According to Cash, sometimes her clients are very much in denial, but people on the outside will see the problem.
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Over the past few years, mental health professionals and social psychologists have debated over whether "digital" addiction ought to be classified in the same way as substance-related disorders and addictions. The word "addiction" can be applied in many ways, making its boundaries difficult to define. Generally, in order to be considered an addiction, the processes involved must interfere with daily functioning, resulting in social, academic, or occupational impairment.
"So, you know, you have an 18-year-old who is [addicted to] gaming and socially isolated," Cash explains. "He avoids people, has no other interests, or if he has any interests, he's given them up. Well, from the perspective of what constitutes a healthy and balanced life, you need sleep, exercise, and face-to-face social interactions. So not getting any of those things—those are the negative consequences."
The addiction literature needs to be more inclusive.
Although various technological addictions are still under consideration in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, some argue that tech overuse ought to be classified as a subset of behavioral addictions, similar to other non-chemical addictions such as pathological gaming and compulsive shopping. "There needs to be a general category for addiction," says Dr. Cash. "There are so many behavioral addictions out there, like: social media, sex, porn, and gambling. I think it's silly to exclude digital addictions. They are just like any other addiction in that they produce both a sense of euphoria and profound withdrawal. The addiction literature needs to be more inclusive."
Technology addiction rehab centers like the one Dr. Cash directs are popping up all over the country. The reSTART Center markets itself as "a place of rest and renewal for technology users seeking a private, peaceful, and spacious place to confront their digital lives." Her eight to 12-week digital detox program costs upwards of $14,000 and has been running since 2009. When asked about the people currently seeking her help, Dr. Cash says her clients tend to be men between the ages of 18 and 28—there are some women, but very few. "They all tend to be bright, likable people, but again, it all varies. Some people have had full lives before they fell off the rails, while others have only lived an online existence. As you can imagine, treating these people is a lot harder."
Once in the program, clients are cut off from using any form of technology and the center's coaches and therapists work with them to learn how to "reconnect with real life" and deal with any co-occurring mental health conditions. In order to "break the cycle of dependency," reSTART enforces a 45-day abstinence-based structure in which her clients—all of whom also have sponsors—are taught the life skills that may go underdeveloped as a result of excessive technology use.
Clients also live in "tech limited, video game free, democratically self-supporting, and drug free housing," modeled after the Oxford House, a concept for housing spaces for recovery from substance abuse and addiction.
For those who can't afford the hefty price tag at tech rehab spaces like reSTART, outpatient networks are also available. At the end of 2015, Talkspace, a messaging-based online therapy service, developed a "Social Media Dependency Therapy Program," which the company claims is the first program of its kind designed to help people manage their use of and response to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social platforms. The 12-week program works similarly to other text-based therapy plans in that you can message your remote therapist at any time or place from your phone.
It's a funny thing using social media to address social media addiction, but everyone uses social media.
It may seem counterintuitive to use technology in order to limit technological overuse; however, Talkspace addiction specialist, Katherine Glick, defends the program's design. "It's a funny thing using social media to address social media addiction, but everyone uses social media," she says. "It is a staple of our cognitive landscape, and so to use it to our advantage—to use it purposefully and meaningfully—I think just readapts your relationship with it."
For example, one of Glick's specialty areas is food addiction, the recovery process for which she compares to social media addiction. "You abstain from alcohol or drugs and that's great, but you can't abstain from food. So in terms of working with my current addiction clients, its all about renegotiating their relationship with food and figuring out what functions food has served for you up until this point, whether its comfort or escapism or whatever, and then readapting a healthier, more balanced relationship with food," she says. "I think that we can use technology and social media to our advantage and help people with their compulsive technology use. It's just moving someone from a mindless place to one where they are more mindful about their relationship to technology."
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Both tech rehab and social media dependency programs are new and imperfect; nevertheless, ubiquitous computing and smart technologies are likely here to stay. While Dr. Cash and Glick's approaches to technological and social media dependency are dissimilar, they agree that these sorts of disorders are not only on the rise, but will soon need to be legitimized by the American Psychiatric Association.
"I predict that digital and internet addiction will be incorporated into the DSM very much like gambling disorder was in 2013," she explains. "More and more treatment facilities are going to be incorporating modalities centered towards technology addiction. I do think that all healthcare systems are moving toward an online model. We are in a technology growth overload and I don't see that stopping anytime soon; I think it's just going to ramp up and continue to increase."