An example of this is one I hear in couple’s therapy. It goes something like this: “Why do you have to be on your phone all the time?” The other partner answers, “What are you talking about? You’ve been on Facebook for the last hour?”
We're All A Bit Hypocritical
Parents regularly complain to their children they are on social media too much as they spend the next two hours answering texts, emails, and DM’s. As a parent myself, we all have to admit we are a bit hypocritical when it comes to technology. If we were in high school today, I’m sure we would be spending a good deal of time on Instagram and Snapchat.
Now I am not an opponent of technology. I run several businesses, and this would not be possible without my laptop, smartphone, and the Internet. And despite the desire of some of my clients, we are never going back to 1985, nor should we.
Technology is a resource like anything else and can be used effectually or misused harmfully. I believe technology has benefited us in a myriad of ways. However, we can also use it in a compulsive way the same as food, sex, or spending.
Part of the reason it is such a challenge to manage it successfully is due to its rapid pace of change. As human beings, we are the great adaption machines. But we are struggling at times to manage the resource of technology in an effective manner because we are in uncharted territory.
Technology and Evolution
Rather than just sitting around and complaining like an old person telling teenagers to, “Get off my lawn,” we need to delve deeper to identify effective solutions. To begin to integrate technology in a more healthy fashion we need to understand how it merges with evolution. There are two primary ways our smartphones in particular are hijacking our threat response and reward systems.
The first aspect is how it creates an artificial sense of urgency. When you look at the hierarchy of needs, survival ranks firsts. Things associated with survival, such as safety, food, water, oxygen, motivate us to orient and obtain them first before other needs, such as achievement and fulfilling one’s potential.
Chronic 'Fight or Flight'
From a historical perspective, maintaining connection to the group was associated with survival. The ultimate punishment in ancient times was banishment, which was equivalent to the death sentence; if you were not part of the group, you were dead.
With the plethora of social media platforms today, we have endless opportunities to evaluate whether the group is accepting of us or not. Furthermore, the infinite news feeds streaming a limitless amount of death, destruction, and mayhem keeps our stress-response system chronically engaged. The result is a constant release of adrenaline and cortisol, which drains us of energy and leads to numerous negative effects on our health.
Dopamine and Our Reward System
A second major way technology grabs hold of evolutionary forces is in regards to our reward system. One of the neurochemicals the brain rewards itself is through the release of dopamine. Dopamine is triggered by novelty, when things are better than anticipated, and for the hunt, chase, and pursuit of a meaningful goal.
Moreover, dopamine is associated with learning. When we learn something significant, the brain rewards us with dopamine. Things that trigger a high release of dopamine the brain wants us to remember and pay attention to. This is one of the reason synthetic drugs become so addictive: they release a large amount of dopamine, and the brain ranks it higher on the survival scale.
The Hunt, Chase, and Pursuit
In relation to the hunt, chase, and pursuit, for most of human history we were hunter-gatherers. When we would go looking for a meal, it may take us days to find and obtain something to eat. The brain had to develop a means for keeping us motivated through all the failure and discouragement to help us survive. This was dopamine.
Think of the last time you went fishing or played golf and were just about ready to quit. Then you hit a good shot or something tugged on the line. Now you’re in it for at least another hour. This is the result of the dopamine hit you just got. Dopamine is also a major energy source. A great example of this is when I am doing long distance running. The heat is oppressive. I’m getting gassed. Then a song comes on my playlist that always gets me going. Boom! I’m good for a couple more miles.
When your smartphone is sitting in your visual field and you are attempting to engage in a task such as writing or working on something important, your brain will drip dopamine consistently as you are wondering whether someone responded to a text, email, or social media post. Refraining from checking will become almost unbearable at some point resulting in stopping what you are doing and reaching for the phone.
There is a cost to this in efficiency. When you attempt to perform a goal or assignment, it takes the brain a little time to get warmed up to maximum productivity. When you leave this state to participate in another activity and then attempt to return to the task at hand, it can take five to twenty minutes to get back to the level of focus and efficiency you were in prior. This is known as switching costs. Doing this several times can extend a forty-five minute project to several hours, not to mention the quality of your work will suffer.
The Cost of Overstimulation
A final word on dopamine and the reward pathway. When you are excessively stimulating dopamine receptors they will begin to get, for lack of a better term, overstimulated. This can result in their receding. The consequence is tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and lack of ability to feel good without the substance or behavior. This is referred to as Anhedonia.
When you put everything I have referred to in this article together, you begin to see the hazards of abusing technology: it can generate chronic anxiety, fatigue, relationship disconnection, depressive symptoms, and an inability to feel pleasure without it. Just as with alcohol, food, and sex, having sex or a glass of wine does not make you a sex addict or an alcoholic.
The Tyranny of Artificial Urgency
In addiction treatment, they classify usage by use, misuse, abuse, and dependency. Everyone is not in the same category. Just because you use technology and social media does not mean your addicted to it, despite what someone in your life may assert. However, you should be willing to take an honest look at how healthy or productive your current use of technology is.
What I would encourage you to do is begin to break away from the tyranny of artificial urgency and chronic activation of our reward system, which tricks the brain into believing these things, which in most cases are of little importance, rank high in significance. Start asking yourself, “Is this really that important?” I can assure you the majority of the time it will not be. Begin to take conscious control of your use of technology.
Breaking Free From Automatic Programming
The brain wants things to be reflexive, or automatic. The reason being is it wants to conserve energy. It doesn’t want to be uncomfortable. But living life in a mindless manner is not going to lead to creating the life of your dreams and achieving your full potential. Similarly, to your use of food, alcohol, and sex, having no restrictions on yourself will lead to obesity, abuse, and health consequences.
Develop the internal discipline to limit your intake just as you would in these other areas. You wouldn’t think it was acceptable to drink for fifteen to twenty hours a week. Moreover, I don’t believe most partners would be okay with you watching pornography for twenty hours a week. The negative impact of these behaviors would be more apparent. This is one of the challenges with technology: the adverse effects are less initially evident.
When it comes to technology we are learning to adapt as we go, and we do not have a great deal of long-term research yet as to its benefits and detriments. Again, I am overall a proponent of technology and wholeheartedly believe it has tremendous benefits for us. Nonetheless, we each as individuals need to honestly evaluate how we are using it and be willing to take a look at potential negative aspects on our psychological health.
So start making deliberate time to disconnect from it. Engage in face-to-face social connection, get out in nature, take a yoga class, mediate, engage in whatever spiritual practices you find meaningful, etc. Don’t let it become your master, but learn how to master it. Learning to live with intention is key for living a fulfilling and rewarding life. Judicious use of technology can be a resource for achieving this goal.
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.