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‘They can’t help it’: Australians struggle with technology ‘addiction’

In one case, he met parents in despair because their teenage son’s compulsive playing of computer games had reached a point where he had dropped out of university, no longer socialised and would miss meals.

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The teen threatened to harm himself after his parents cut off the internet at home in an effort to deal with his technology addition, according to “He just went berserk,” Mr Rosenthal said. “He was threatening them: ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to harm myself’.”

It’s easy to read about extreme technology addiction and dismiss it as different to the experience of everyday Australians who compulsively check their phones.

But Mr Rosenthal said increasing numbers of people were seeking treatment for their obsessive use of technology to check social media, play games or pore over news and other online sites.

He added many people were in denial about how this behaviour affected their relationships, work and capacity to pursue their lives, reasoning it wasn’t a ‘serious’ addiction.

“Especially with tech addiction, it’s like ‘I’m not a cocaine or heroin addict so I’m not that bad’,” Mr Rosenthal said. “Yet they’re spending just as much, if not more, time engaging in addictive behaviour.”

Mr Rosenthal said technology facilitated other addictions such as sex and gambling. Technology addiction can also be difficult to treat because, unlike drugs, alcohol or gambling, it is an integral part of daily life.

Yet it is not a medically recognised health condition, according to Dr Liliana Laranjo, a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Macquarie University.

The decision by the World Health Organisation to recognise gaming disorder – compulsive and obsessive playing of video games – triggered controversy.

“Many researchers disagree that technology itself is harmful, and view ‘technology addiction’ as a symptom of other underlying disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and attention problems,” Dr Laranjo said.

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But research has found aspects of technology deliberately designed to encourage compulsive checking, with users of digital media exhibiting signs of behavioural addiction.

Dr Laranjo said technology was not harmful, but had to be used in a healthy way that did not interfere with personal, social or professional lives.

Disabling social media notifications is one way of dealing with a potential problem.

“With this strategy, I am able to guarantee that I am not interrupted by social media when I’m trying to focus on work or when I’m trying to spend quality time with someone,” she said. “And I also have more control over my time, only checking social media when I want to, not because I received a cue for that.”

Drivers and cyclists face fines and demerit points for using smartphones. The Switching Off survey suggested the use of smartphones in shops, public transport, restaurants and while walking were a source of annoyance.

The survey’s participants were particularly incensed by people using smartphones at the dinner table.

“People are just selfish, they’re rude, they’ve got bad manners, going out for lunch people just take calls while they’re talking to you,” one respondent said.

Joanne Orlando, a researcher in technology and learning at Western Sydney University, said the majority of adults and young people she had interviewed as part of her research said they were addicted to their phone: “At the same time they also say how important using technology is for them.”

Dr Orlando said people checked their phone, on average, every 12 minutes when bored or procrastinating, while teenagers fear being left out of social activities.

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She said technology companies had devised solutions to address what she called the “zombie check”.

Apple’s Screen Time, for example, provides information on how much time a person spends using an app, how many notifications they receive and how often they use their smartphone or tablet. Google introduced similar features for its Android phone operating system.

“I’m using these strategies with teens right now,” Dr Orlando said. “And what’s good is that they are open to trying because it’s based on self-regulation and giving them the responsibility and control.”

Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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