Published on November 16th, 2016 | from CAMH

Balancing tech use

With thanks to Lisa Pont, Social Worker and Educator, Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario at CAMH |

Consider this: The iPhone is not even 10 years old.

This may not seem like a noteworthy revelation at first glance, but think about your day-to-day life. How often do you reach for your smartphone to perform tasks that would’ve been done differently 10 years ago? Looking up information, making a reservation at a restaurant, looking at a map, reading reviews, purchasing a product, listening to music, watching videos, interacting with friends or taking a photo – more often than not, it will be with the aid of a smartphone.

For many, the smartphone has led to a culture of information and knowledge sharing that has never been seen before, all accessible at the touch of your fingertips (literally).

But for others, the effects of technology misuse or overuse can have worrying results, and technology that connects us can create attachment or detachment issues for people who become dependent on tech. As people become more attached to their devices and spend more time curating their online personas and interacting with online friends and followers, they may experience real-world detachment from their real-life relationships, events, issues and concerns.

It’s no wonder that, according to CAMH’s Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), 63 per cent of students spend three or more hours of their free time in front of a screen each day. One in six students spend five hours or more on social media each day, and this connectedness plays a part in the increased psychological distress in youth.

What is Technology Overuse?

To put it simply, technology overuse occurs when technology controls the user, rather than the user controlling it. It might sound like a simple concept – and it is – but psychological factors come into play that encourage people to become addicted to their devices.

Sometimes, these factors can be artificially created. The notion of earning a reward (points, badges, achievements or unlocked content) for completing a task is common in videogames, but “gamification” has spilled over to other applications we use regularly – something that marketers and app developers are well aware of. These days, users can receive a badge or an achievement for doing a simple task in an app, and are pushed deeper with constant rewards. Even ‘Likes’ on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks gamify the experience, as users – whether consciously or not – compete with others to score more points or Likes.

This positive reinforcement in the form of token online interactions gives rise to another series of issues. People who are accustomed to getting attention or acknowledgement through Likes may be unprepared for the very real situations when they don’t receive the same level of social reinforcement, whether online or in real life.

Other factors are less concrete but equally effective. The idea of FOMO, or “Fear Of Missing Out” runs rampant in online culture. The desire to participate in current trends works because humans generally want and need to belong. It plays on our need for inclusion, but it can also force people to constantly check in on their devices, to make sure that they haven’t missed something new or relevant.

There are physical factors as well, tied to behavioural conditioning. The unmistakable buzz in your pocket when you receive a notification is enough to prompt even the most disciplined people to check their phone for updates. These actions are governed by chemical responses in our brains that link the stimulus (phone buzz) with a chemical response (dopamine) associated with a potential reward.

Our environments have increasingly supported technology use, both positively and negatively. The increasing prevalence of technology in schools facilitates learning and knowledge transfer. But research shows that having smartphones in class impacts students’ attention and performance, not just for the user, but for those around them as well. While parents and teachers may worry that youth will lag behind in computer/tech skills without access to this technology, it does not mean that there should not be some limits as to when, why and how tech is used.

Tips on Tech Use

The world is trending towards more and more use of mobile devices. This is something we can’t ignore, but there are ways to curb tech overuse in youth. Here are a few tips for parents to consider:

  • Role model proper behaviour for kids. At home, it’s important that adults also monitor their own tech use, if they want young people to use technology in balanced and healthy ways.
  • Encourage tech-free time during meals, when guests are over, during family time, etc. For those who REALLY need to get that food pic or flatlay for Instagram, allow a few seconds for the photo to be taken, and then ask people to put away their phones.
  • Setting limits for use in-home, including implementing a ‘no tech in bedrooms at night’ rule, or configuring your Wi-Fi router to deactivate at a certain time in the evening.
  • Turning off notifications or setting vibration to off while at work, school or other important places
  • Enabling auto-reply texts and messages, and? notifying others if you are driving, operating machinery, or are preoccupied with tasks that need your complete attention. You can do this at night too, to ensure you get a good night’s rest.

Being constantly connected doesn’t have to be a con

It’s important to understand the increasing role that technology plays in our lives, and how it will continue to evolve. There’s nothing wrong with finding excitement in social media, or enjoying video games, or being connected – as long as we accept and understand that technology is meant to serve our purposes. We need to question and evaluate the impact of our devices on our mental health and well- being, including its effects on mood, sleep and attention. Once we become a slave to our own devices, then it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with technology.

If you think you have a problem, it’s important to seek help from a professional. If your tech use is impacting your school or work performance, stress levels, relationships or health, it may be time to reach out to a counsellor. We’d be happy to help!

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