Dealing with the �Vice' in �Device'

Don Tennant

Time to fess up: Do you own your gadgets, or do they own you? A lot of people are finding that their digital devices have so much control over them that their personal and professional lives are as negatively affected as they'd be if they had a problem with alcohol or drugs. So there's an interesting question at play here: Can our dependence on our devices actually be considered an addiction?

I had a fascinating discussion on the topic earlier this week with Joanne Cantor, a psychologist and author of the book, "Conquer CyberOverload." Clearly, a lot of people are hooked on their devices and can't bear to be without texting, e-mail or Internet access for any length of time, so I asked Cantor if this dependency constitutes addiction in the medical sense. Her response:

That depends on your definition of 'addiction.' It's addiction in the sense that many people find themselves doing more of it than they want to, or than they intended to, and that many people find themselves having difficulty giving it up; and after giving it up, often finding themselves inadvertently taking it up again. And they find it interfering with certain aspects of their lives. In that sense, it has a lot of similarities to addiction, although there isn't any physiological mechanism that people have identified. So in that sense, it depends on where you draw the line in the definition of 'addiction.'

What I'm referring to by physiological addiction is that, for example, if you're addicted to certain drugs, there's a change that's made in a specific receptor in your brain, making it very difficult to live without it. So some people don't like us to use the word 'addiction' unless there's some specific change in the brain that is undoable. As far as I'm concerned, many people behave as though they were addicted-that is, they have trouble giving it up, and it interferes with important aspects of their lives. I don't want to quibble over whether we should call it, specifically, an addiction. Maybe it's a bad habit that's hard to break. But many people say they're hooked on their devices, and that their devices are taking over their lives in ways that interfere with other things.

Whether it's an addiction or a bad habit that's hard to break, quitting is obviously tough. Cantor advises people to 'resist the urge' to go online to check on their peripheral interests while they're working. But the obvious question is, how do you do that? Isn't that like telling smokers to resist the urge to smoke? Cantor's response:

It takes practice. The good news is that if you can train yourself to work, say, even for a half hour, and then do your checking, you'll find that you get so much more done, and that in itself is reinforcing. That's what you need to do, because obviously, if you set up your computer so that things are coming at you all the time, you're going to be more likely to wander off all the time. If you set it up so you're not constantly being interrupted, but allow yourself to check those things out when you take a break, you're going to do better in your work and still keep up with what you need to do. It's this constant stream of interruptions that's stressful, and an anathema to getting anything done.

And It's not just getting work done-it can also be interpersonal relationships, where two people are together, but they're both checking their e-mail or Blackberry or whatever, and it's interfering with their relationship. If they can agree, no texting at the dinner table, for example, it's hard the first time, but if they can learn to stick to it, it works a lot better, and people are happier because they get that contact that they used to have that they've lost, because they're constantly in technological contact with other people.

It's not like you have to give up all your gadgets, Cantor says. You basically just have to say who's boss.

So what do you think? Easier said than done? Is this more of an addiction than many of us are willing to acknowledge?

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