Technology Can Make Our Lives Worse, But It Doesn’t Have to

digital detox internet addiction

After two years of extended lockdowns, isolation, and remote work, new research suggests that a majority of Australians now view technology negatively due to our increased reliance on it. 58% have said that it’s time to re-evaluate and review our relationship with technology and the impact it has on our lives and our mental health.

Dr Andrew Campbell, associate professor at the University of Sydney and one of Australia’s leading cyber psychologists behind this latest research has highlighted the need for Aussies to strike a balance between their digital devices and the rest of their lives.

Speaking to The Latch, one of the key trends he’s noticed in our relationship to technology of late is FOMO or the fear of missing out.

“First, if we look at anyone of any age, it’s not just youth, who picks up a new application on a phone or a tablet, there’s a period of wonderment. They want to know how it works and how to use it,” Campbell said.

“You play with it, you become habituated to it, and then you move to an obsessional stage and this is what is referred to as internet addiction or social media addiction”.

However, Campbell argues that it’s not technology itself that is bad, it’s the way we use it. Technology like phones, laptops, and tablets, can hardly be separated from our current lives. We need them to communicate and many of us couldn’t do our jobs without them. However, this dependence and reliance on them — outside of what is strictly necessary — is what’s become problematic.

This leads us to Campbell’s second key trend, our inability to regulate our productivity due to spending far too much time online.

“We work more hours now online than we have before and it’s exponentially going up. And during the pandemic, it got to its height,” Campbell said.

“It became a norm to the point that people realised we can’t actually live healthy lives being online all the time”.

However, Campbell notes that being online is less about the time you spend and more about what you’re doing. Technology has of course played a hugely beneficial role over the past few years in keeping us connected to our loved ones, something more than 90% of Aussies in Campbell’s research stated.

“While there are aspects that are addictive, it’s really a magnification of something you’re seeking,” Campbell said. For the most part, that’s that dopamine reward we get from interacting with other people online whether it’s through getting likes on an Instagram post or watching someone else’s TikTok videos.

“When we talk about being addicted to the internet or addicted to phones, we’re actually kind of ironically saying we’re addicted to being social,” he explains.

“One of the things technology does is it gives us rewards for learning new things, applying new things, and then getting other people to say, ‘Well done, you’ve learned that’, or, ‘Well done, thank you for sharing’.

“So we have the social reward to almost everything we do. The internet is beautifully designed as a rewarding game, if you will, and every person has susceptibility to some addictive quality, even away from the internet.

“We know this from drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and so on. So now it’s a case of ‘what enhances your life?’. And that really brings into question the healthy balance of both online and offline”.

Are We All Addicted to The Internet?

In a way, yes. True addiction to the internet is defined as problematic, compulsive use of the internet and can lead to a range of physiological conditions from poor mental health to lack of sleep. It’s not however recognised as a disorder by the major medical establishment in and of itself.

Addiction to the internet is however associated with problematic online gambling and gaming but outside of these, it’s hard to draw the line between addiction and just being online a lot.

“It’s to the levels of actually giving other things up in your life,” Campbell said.

“Giving up your family, giving up money, giving up security, giving up personal hygiene. That’s when we get to that level. Those aspects are part of a real, what we call problematic internet disorder”.

The disorder however doesn’t usually exist in a vacuum. Those who experience depression, anxiety, or other mental health and social issues are more likely to use the internet problematically.

Australians are some of the most online people in the world. Some studies have found that 13.4 million of us spend 18.8 hours per day online, checking our phones as soon as we wake up and scrolling until we go to sleep. Others suggest that around 10% of teenagers spend upwards of nine hours a day online, even on weekdays.

The 2015 Psychological Society’s Stress and Well-being in Australia Report also states that “More than one in ten Australians (12%) report ‘issues with keeping up with social media networks’ as a source of stress.”

As with all addictions, internet addiction is defined by its problematic nature. If you’re finding it particularly difficult to stay away from the internet, even when you’ve told yourself you’re going to take a break, or compromising your sleep or ability to work or function socially, that’s where you start entering addiction territory.

What Do We Do About It?

As a disorder, which you yourself are unlikely to have, it’s incredibly hard to treat, Campbell said.

“More often than not, we treat it like a gambling disorder and that is kind of where we see the internet disorder world at the moment with those who are severe, and really do need counselling,” he explained.

For the rest of us, a readjustment and a balance are really all that’s called for. While we might immediately think that a digital detox is in order, Campbell’s research indicates that these aren’t super effective.

One in four respondents reported having tried a digital detox but more than one in ten found that they fell back into their old habits soon after. 

“If you truly need to switch off from work, it’s a wonderful thing to do,” Campbell said.

“[But] it’s not sustainable. You are going to go back to your job, and you are going to pick up your phone and you are going to get messages and you are going to get emails and you are going to be connected. That’s the world we live in.

“The detox is nothing more than a pause is literally hitting a pause button”.

Given the vast increase in the way technology mediates our social and professional lives, and the looming virtual reality world of the metaverse that’s begging to peek over the horizon and swallow us up once again, Campbell argues that questions around how we use technology are more relevant than ever.

“Immersion in technology is going to keep increasing. That’s not just time, it’s the way we use it. And if we’re starting to move into a three-dimensional virtual world, then we know we need to really set those boundaries of what are we going to use it for, and how it best benefits us.

“Otherwise, it becomes a consuming obsession, if not an addiction.

“But then there’s a positive side, it could also be a wonderful world, to allow for people to actually learn from others, enjoy new cultural experiences, and also seek health and wellness.

“There are lots of studies coming out now showing that VR is very good for stress, for anxiety for depression and trauma. So there’s a lot of opportunities in the world.”

“We’re at that cross-section right now, where we have to ask ourselves, how do we use it better? And if we don’t start asking that, then essentially we stay in this rut that we’re in of overusing and not being happy”.

Reflective, mindful use of technology, as best we can against the weight of the algorithms designed to hook us in, is our only option, Campbell argues. To this end, he’s partnered with HP to develop an interactive digital experience called REFLCT.

This is a first-of-its-kind evidence-based algorithm project that allows Aussies to reflect upon and analyse their technology usage to determine if it brings value to their lives. 

“It’s not just looking at time, but what you do. And then you get to determine from your own reflection, if that’s a good use of your time, if that’s a good use of the tools that you’re using,” Campbell said.

Rather than reject technology, Campbell has said that we need to take a step back and look at our usage, allowing us not to be overwhelmed by it but to reverse that relationship with technology that we’ve developed and allow it to become a tool for our own betterment once again.

That takes practice, discipline, and self-awareness, however the best thing you can do right now to change it is to understand where you are in that relationship and examine if it’s where you want to be. If not, you have the power to make that change.

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