Our Digital Addiction: How Interactive Technology Is Invisibly Molding Our Everyday Experience

August 25, 2021

... and how to start the process of breaking free.

What has a ring, but no finger? 
What demands that you answer it, yet never asks a question? 
What can never be allowed to die, even though it was never born?

Ok, Ok. A little much, I know. But you get the point: our devices have an invisible grasp on us

There’s some unseen force which pulls your hand towards your phone time and time again, insisting you must have it with you on the toilet, and sending small waves of panic as you pat down your pockets only to realize you left it in the other room. Let’s face it, if this interaction were taking place between two people, it would leave onlookers deeply concerned - i.e. the codependent couple whose relationship secretly scares all their friends.

Although silly, the riddles above are actually quite poignant because they imply that there’s some kind of emotional relationship taking place here. Take a child away from a screen and tell me the response isn’t eerily similar to taking an infant away from its mother's warm embrace. 

The reality is that for many of us, we are attached to our devices because they give us a form of emotional safety. A secure base that we can take with us everywhere, all of the time. And why wouldn’t we? We control, command, and rule over our digital pacifiers to exert our will on the world and improve our lives in the process... But the next time you catch your hand in mid-reach for your phone and you can’t figure out why, consider the likelihood that the shoe is on the other foot - and it's probably been there for some time.

"It's the perfect storm of process and content."

Mari K. Swingle, PhD., author of iMinds

So what makes the “pull” towards our devices so great? Dr. Mari K Swingle, a leading researcher and practitioner in the field of Digital Addiction, describes it as the “perfect storm of process and content.” The term ‘process’ refers to the interactive nature of the apps and devices we engage with. Swipe down on any social media app, or your email, and get a fun sound linked with an animation indicating to you that the application is about to refresh your feed. Woo-hoo! The action of swiping, linked with the sound and the animation, create feelings of wellness and stimulation. Think of it as a reward for engagement – every time I do this action, I get this response. That is a process.

Process is king in the gaming world, but over the last few years it has slowly been making its way to other platforms like social media or even work-related apps. Have you noticed the fun sounds that Slack has started to make? Those sounds give you a feeling of wellness, which not only conditions you to interact with the app, but to anticipate more fun sounds… and this is where things start to get diabolical. 

Research has proven that the most powerful reward schedule for the brain is a reward schedule that is intermittent. This means that the reward doesn’t come on a consistent schedule, or even at predictable times, but rather at irregular intervals.

So, every time I do this action, I might get this response...

Doesn’t sound inciting? Our brains would beg to differ. Dopamine production is actually stronger in anticipation of a rewarding event than it is during or after the event. Thus, if I make a reward schedule irregular it keeps you on the hook longer because you’re making more dopamine than if I were to simply give you the reward every time or right away. Video games have been capitalizing on this insight for some time, creating systems like the “loot box,” which keeps players on the game for long hours only to get a chance (yes, like a slot machine) at getting the reward they seek.  They keep coming back to play the same content over and over because they want a certain piece of “loot” out of the box – or at least that’s what they think. What they really want, however, is the feeling of the chase. This feeling of the chase (the heightened state of arousal in anticipation of a reward) is what also characterizes the struggle of the gambling addict. Win, lose, or draw, it is the heightened state of arousal in anticipation which keeps people coming back for more. 

"Dopamine production is actually stronger in anticipation of a rewarding event than it is during or after the event."

And what about content? As I’m sure we all know, content has a powerful pull of its own. The chemical release of the brain in response to content is what has kept the pornography industry thriving since its inception. Not only is dopamine heavily involved in the viewing of porn, but if orgasm is also involved, pornography will release a powerful dose of the bonding chemical oxytocin – the same neuromodulator which bonds mothers to babies, and sexual partners to one another. Similarly, heightened states of fear and stress influence the release of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. Ever seen the local news? It only airs four times a day.

Now that we have a better picture of what Dr. Swingle was referring to when she called today's “i-tech… the perfect storm of process and content.” Not only do we still have the original heavy hitters like gaming and pornography, but now we also have to deal with the new wave of social media apps which combine the best of both worlds. These apps have content similar to the nightly news, mixed with content bordering on pornography, mixed with how to make a great lasagna, delivered to us (along with likes and comments) on an intermittent reward schedule, tied up nicely in an interactive package that allows for a pleasurable user experience full of vibrant colors, sounds, and animations. Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, the “I” in Swingles “I-tech” refers not only to the word interactive, but also internet-based. When an app is internet-based it implies a certain amount of access we have to it. Which, currently, is unlimited.    

Now, this newsletter is not intended to be a strike against technology. Quite the opposite. Advances in technology are exactly what allows us to help people using neuroimaging and neuromodulation techniques. To reference one of the basic principles of toxicology – the dose makes the poison.

We cannot continue to indiscriminately consume mass amounts of I-tech without suffering the consequences (and many of us already are). Much like alcohol consumption and overeating, i-tech has become socially sanctioned, and it is now considered “normal” to be locked into our devices nearly at all times. However the symptoms emerging from Digital Addiction are all but normal. Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Sexual Dysfunction, to list just a few. 

Dr. Swingle's research is uncovering more consequences of digital addiction every day, the most frightening of which emerge when children under the age of three are introduced to i-tech and can create an emotional attachment with the device rather than their caregiver. This of course has huge implications for developmental milestones in a child’s brain, most of which can only be reached through interactions with other humans. 

So what are we supposed to do about our i-tech?

Here are some resources and interventions for you to begin the process of breaking the invisible chain.

  • Here's an article detailing how to change your smart phone to "greyscale" mode. This is a feature that changes everything on your phone to black and white rather than the vibrant colors which grab your eye and tell your brain to seek more of the stimulating information. 
  • Here's another article that tells you how to set your 'bedtime' on your phone, which automatically turns your screen light down and blocks notifications after a certain time. Make it 10:00pm, at the absolute latest. 
  • STOP taking your phone to the bathroom, bedroom, and similar spaces. Have a short book or some magazines on hand for you to pass the time on the Squatty Potty but leave the phone out of it. 
  • Don't look at light and especially not screens between the hours of 11:00pm and 4:00am- research is emerging showing that light (from any source) at these times can create depressive tendencies and inhibit learning.
  • No i-tech before the age of three. Period. Early learning is far too important for brain development, and later emotional development, to be interrupted and stunted by interactive technology.
  • If you're having a particularly hard time breaking the chain, check out Time To Log Off. This organization has tons of great resources, including a free digital detox cheat sheet, a podcast about struggling with Digital Addiction, and full online classes that walk you through how to take control back from the devices that are hijacking your life.
  • Finally, check out Dr. Mari Swingle's book iMinds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species.

Facing addiction can feel like staring into a black hole.

Hacks like turning your phone on greyscale mode can be amazing tools to begin the process of breaking free, but sometimes we need more neurological, cognitive, and therapeutic support to have real success. Our faculty of seasoned neuro and talk therapists specialize in helping people with addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma & grief, and much more. Our human experience is so complex and stressful, and especially during times like these, it is helpful to have a treatment team that can come alongside you.  

To schedule your appointment and get more information, call us today at (970) 281-7872 or visit aspenneurofeedback.com to get started. 

John VanDeGrift
Director of Neurotherapy
Aspen Neurofeedback

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