Do you find yourself constantly tethered to your devices? Compared to one or two decades ago, you’ve probably noticed that a large portion of your waking life is now spent connected to technology and the Internet. Whether you’re sifting tirelessly through work emails, Googling energetically for an assignment, slaying giant dragons in an online game, or endlessly scrolling through social media on the commute home, you feel continually connected.
The digital revolution has been incredibly beneficial for us; there is more entertainment, more ways to connect, more information and more ways to share it. However, for a growing number of people, use of this technology is becoming difficult to control - and you might be one of them. You might have told yourself “I can stop anytime I want”, or “it’s just something for me to do when I’m bored – at least I’m not drinking or taking drugs”, but then time after time find yourself absorbed in online activities for far longer than you intended.
Having said that, the amount of time you spend online, in and of itself, does not always indicate whether you have a problem or not. In fact, it can be quite difficult to determine whether your Internet use is problematic, given that so much of your daily life is likely dependent on the Internet; most of your work activities probably require email and Internet access; you might regularly do banking, insurance and other errands online; and social media and instant messaging are often the quickest ways to communicate with your family and friends. For most of us, ‘switching off’ completely would be simply impossible. With so much Internet use being ‘necessary’, how do you know when it’s time to make a focused effort to cut back? When is it time for a ‘digital detox’?
The most important warning sign that something needs to change is when your internet, technology or gaming use starts to interfere with your relationships, work or daily life; in short, when you start to experience negative consequences. Below are 10 signs that indicate that your use might be turning into a problem you can no longer control:
1. You often find yourself thinking about going online.
Whether you’re waking up in the morning, commuting home, watching TV, or at dinner with friends, you find your mind constantly switches to what you could be doing online. ‘What’s happening on Facebook?’ ‘Has that blog been updated yet?’ ‘What could I post next?’ ‘I wonder if any of my friends will be online to run that dungeon when I get home.’ Online activities start to take up all of your head space.
2. You find yourself spending longer and longer periods of time online.
A few years ago, you might have sat online or games for 30 minutes to 1 hour before you felt satisfied enough to do something else. Now, 3 hours seem to go by without you even noticing, and you still crave more. You might also notice impatience with Internet speed – anything even slightly slower than what you’re used to causes you the utmost frustration. Think of it in a similar way to the rewarding feeling of substances – if you were a smoker dependent on that instant ‘hit’ from your cigarette, you’d get pretty frustrated if it occasionally took ten times as long to kick in.
3. You go online to lift your mood or escape your problems.
You probably have a range of ‘coping strategies’ for when you’re feeling low or going through a tough time. However, if you find that you’re constantly turning to the Internet as your primary source of comfort, this may be a sign that you’re becoming reliant on it. Again, think of it in a similar way to substance use – you might pour yourself a stiff drink if you’ve had a pretty trying day, but if you find yourself having a drink every time you feel low, this might be a sign of dependence.
4. You feel cranky, sad, annoyed or irritable when you’re not online.
Try resisting the urge to go online or game for a day (or even a few hours!) and see how you feel. If you find yourself struggling with any of the emotions above, AND if going back online gets rid of those feelings, it might be a sign that your use is becoming a problem.
5. You’ve lost interest in activities and hobbies that you used to like.
What things did you used to do before you spent so much time on the Internet or gaming? How much do they feature in your life now? Has the Internet become your sole focus? If you were a bookworm who hasn’t read a book in a year, an avid guitar-player whose guitar is gathering dust, or a budding cook who now relies on microwave meals, this might mean that the Internet has slowly begun to take over.
6. You neglect your health and sleep because of your Internet or gaming use.
Unlike alcohol or other substance use, Internet and gaming use frequently involve extended sedentary sessions sitting down, often with poor posture. If you find yourself continuing to go online despite being sleep deprived, skipping meals, or suffering back, neck or other physical problems, this strongly suggests it’s time for you to cut back.
7. You’ve lost or jeopardised your relationship, job or studies because of your Internet or gaming use.
Whether you were given an ultimatum by your partner, you were fired or given a warning at work, or your university or school marks have dropped significantly, putting any of these important domains in your life at risk is a strong sign that it’s time to make some changes to your use.
8. You’ve covered up or lied about your Internet or gaming use.
You can’t bear the thought of disappointing your friends or family yet again, so you find yourself ‘minimising’ or flat-out deceiving them about how much you’re actually online. For example, you might come home and complain wretchedly about your busy day at work, when you know you spent most of the time browsing websites and YouTube clips. Or, you might say you only stayed up till 1am gaming the previous night, when you know full well you only finally crawled to bed at 4am.
9. You continue going online or gaming despite it causing problems in your relationships.
Your husband might have complained that he hardly sees you in the evenings anymore; your kids might constantly nag you for attention; or your friends might be fed up that you always turn down their social invitations; yet you still find yourself choosing to go online time and time again. You might find yourself constantly making excuses for your behaviour, e.g. “I’ll be down soon!”, “Everyone should be allowed time to themselves”, or “I’ll say yes next time”.
10. You desperately want to cut back your use, or you’ve already tried (and failed).
If you’re already at the point where you’ve tried (or frequently thought about) cutting back, this can be a pretty clear sign that your use is becoming difficult for you to control.
Similar to gambling and alcohol use, overuse of Internet, technology and gaming starts to become a serious issue when it interferes with other areas of your life. Whilst Internet use is simply a ‘hobby’ or 'interest' for many of us, a prominent researcher in the field once put it very succinctly saying:
"Hobbies add to your life, and addictions take away."
If you feel that your Internet, technology or gaming use is becoming (or already is) the latter, it’s important to seek help. Behaviour change can be difficult on your own, and a qualified psychologist can help you to build your motivation and give you practical strategies to change.