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(December 5, 2010)

Why Is It So Hard to Quit?

In March 2008, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry proposed that Internet addiction be officially recognized as a type of "compulsive-impulsive disorder".[6] (In this sense, the term "Internet" is a bit misleading. It is used as a general term, referring, not just to the Internet itself, but to any type of computer, mobile phone, or other such device, whether online or offline.)

The proposed diagnosis has three subtypes:

• Email and text messaging

• Sexual preoccupations (including pornography)

• Excessive game playing

To this, I would add:

• Compulsive talking on a mobile phone (for example, while driving)

The editorial observed that the frequency of such disorders is alarming. For instance, in South Korea — which has a particularly bad problem — the government considers such addictions "one of its most serious public health issues". In 2006, the South Korean government estimated that 2.1 percent of all children aged 6 to 19 (about 210,000 kids) are afflicted and require treatment:

"About 80 percent of those needing treatment may need psychotropic medications, and perhaps 20-24 percent require hospitalization."

The editorial describes four components shared by technology-mediated addictions. As you read this list, think about the people you know who are heavily dependent upon their phones, computers, or game consoles:

1. Excessive use: A loss of sense of time, a neglect of basic drives.

2. Withdrawal: Feelings of anger, tension, or depression when the phone or computer is inaccessible.

3. Tolerance: The need for better equipment, more software, more hours of use.

4. Negative repercussions: Arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, fatigue.

These ideas are so important that, before we move on, I want to go over that list again. The four components shared by people who have technology-mediated addictions are: excessive use, withdrawal, tolerance, and negative repercussions.

Along these lines, an interesting study was carried out at Stanford University in the spring of 2010 by nine graduate students under the supervision of anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann.[10] [11] The graduate students surveyed over 175 Stanford undergraduates with iPhones, 70 percent of whom had owned their phones for less than a year.

The survey showed that the students found their phones useful and were generally happy with them. In fact, I think most of us would agree that smartphones (such as the iPhone) can be extremely useful and interesting tools. However, the study also revealed some serious concerns:

"The most interesting trend was how quickly the iPhone became an indispensable part of the students' lifestyles, and how many of them openly acknowledged they would be lost without it." [12]

The nature of these concerns was quantified as follows. Students were asked to rate their dependence on their phones on a scale from 1 (not addicted) to 5 (completely addicted).

• 10 percent of the students considered themselves completely addicted to their phone. (That is, 10 percent of the students estimated their dependence as 5/5.)

• 34 percent considered themselves mostly addicted (4/5).

• Only 6 percent said they were not at all addicted (1/5).

Of the 90 percent of the students who did not consider themselves "completely addicted":

• 32 percent expressed worry that they would become addicted someday.

In addition:

• 15 percent of those surveyed said the iPhone was turning them into a media addict.

• 25 percent found the phone "dangerously alluring".

• 41 percent said losing their phone would be "a tragedy".

A tragedy?

To older people who consider a tragedy to be more along the lines of Romeo and Juliet, it may seem strange that an undergraduate student would describe the loss of a phone — even a smartphone — in such terms. However, communication technology and peoples' experiences are changing more rapidly than you might think. So quickly, in fact that, when it comes to smartphone-like devices and the effect they have on their users, a cultural "generation" is, at most, only 2-3 years long.

Consider, for example, the following observation made by the anthropology professor who supervised the Stanford survey:

"None of the graduate students who conducted the survey owned an iPhone, and they felt a 'generational gap' between them and the undergraduates they interviewed." [11]

Let's take a moment to think about what this means. You will recall that 70 percent of the undergraduates had owned their iPhone for less than a year. And yet, in that short time, the technology to which they were exposed was so powerful as to change them enough to create a significant technological and cultural "generational gap" between them and the graduate students who were, after all, only a few years older. And if the grad students feel so culturally removed from their younger peers, what type of gap do you think their parents and grandparents must feel with respect to their children and grandchildren?

Now imagine you are the parent of a 10-year-old girl, who has just received her first phone. Ask yourself: How is this phone going to change this young girl? What will happen if I buy her her own smartphone, like the iPhone used by the Stanford undergraduates?

Let us put that thought on hold for a moment and return to the feelings of dependence and anxiety we discussed above. It is important to realize that, as foreign as such feelings may seem to you, they are very real to the iPhone-owning students.

In fact, their fears make sense, because people whose dopamine-mediated pleasure centers have adjusted to frequent stimulation suffer when such stimulation is withdrawn. The resultant symptoms are not trivial and not uncommon. Indeed, it is likely that anyone whose pleasure center is in a low-dopamine condition, will experience at least some of the following symptoms.

Symptoms of Low Dopamine / Dopamine Withdrawal

Yearning: Profound sense that something is missing
Despair: Feeling that negative conditions will never change
Craving: Strong desire to do something to change the situation
Sadness: Feeling of living under a gray cloud
Loneliness: Strong sense of emptiness and solitude
Self-pity: Feeling sorry for oneself
Pessimism: Life is dark, gloomy, and negative
Over-stimulation: Simultaneous agitation and exhaustion
Spaciness: Difficulty concentrating

My guess is that you recognize these symptoms, as most people experience at least some of them from time to time. For example, it is common to feel like this after a romantic breakup or a divorce. You might also feel like this when your youngest child leaves home, when you retire, or when someone close to you dies.

What may surprise you, however, is that very large numbers of otherwise "healthy" people would experience these exact same symptoms should they be forced to stop text messaging or talking on their mobile phone — or game playing, using pornography, gambling online, or obsessively checking their phone for messages or email. By now, of course, you understand what causes these symptoms and how, in such cases, the biology of what is happening is linked to the technology that enables the behavior.

Consider the following statement made during a TV interview with Nikki, a teenage text messaging addict:[13] "I text morning, noon and night, and it adds up to about 3,000 to 5,000 a month. It is bad." Clearly Nikki knows that the combination of biology and technology has created a serious problem for her. One of Nikki's friends, Glendy, commented, "I think if Nikki had to go a day without her phone — even half a day or two hours — she would flip out. She would not know what to do and [she would] go into withdrawal."

Glendy is right. If Nikki stopped texting (or was forced to stop) she would go through withdrawal — and, by now, it probably makes sense to you why.

For virtually all of the time humans beings have existed, they lived in primitive conditions. During that time, the part of our brain we call the pleasure center evolved to ensure we survive by taking care of ourselves (for example, by eating and drinking), and by procreating and bonding (for example, by having sex and by touching one another).

However, there are many ways to feel good, and it is a fact that mankind has always engaged in behaviors to purposely stimulate the pleasure center. Such activities are not necessarily bad. For example, it has been found that when you listen to music that makes you feel intensely good, it's because the pleasure center in your brain is being stimulated.[14] As the researchers explain, "This finding links music with biologically relevant, survival-related stimuli via their common recruitment of brain circuitry involved in pleasure and reward." Similarly, other researchers have found that receiving a monetary reward also stimulates the pleasure center.[15]

When technology and cultural practices combine to enable someone to over-stimulate his or her reward center voluntarily, it leaves the person susceptible to habituation and addiction.

The problem comes when technology and cultural practices combine to enable someone to over-stimulate his or her reward center voluntarily, a practice we might compare to self-medicating. Such behavior leaves the person susceptible to habituation and addiction, because the combination of technology, marketing, and cultural attitudes can reinforce one another in such a way as to hijack the natural reward system.

This is especially important when we consider the behavior of pre-teenage girls who, as we have discussed, are strongly affected by the hormonal changes that occur during puberty. As a result, as girls pass through this stage of life, they naturally develop a strong inclination to spend as much time as they can talking and bonding with their friends. Hence, the excessive use of phones, along with its attendant negative effects and risks.

Such problems arise because, when young girls pass through puberty, they are not yet old enough to have the emotional maturity to use phones, computers, and Internet access wisely. What, then, do you think would happen if young girls were to start demanding their own phones at an even earlier age, when they would be even less emotionally mature?

Actually, that is exactly what is happening because — for a variety of reasons — many girls are entering puberty at a younger age than used to be the case. As you can imagine, the consequences of such a biological shift have become significant.

This is a topic worth discussing but, before we do, let's lay a foundation by taking a moment to talk about puberty itself and how it occurs in girls.

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1. Introduction
2. A Word From Our Sponsor
3. The Female and Male Brains
4. Excessive Text Messaging
5. The Female Brain and Puberty
6. Introducing The Pleasure Center
7. Why Is It So Hard To Quit
8. Girls and Puberty
9. Girls and Premature Puberty
10. Why Your 10 Year Old Daughter Wants Her Own Phone
11. A Final Note
12. References