​​​​Quick! Where's your smartphone? Chances are, it's either already in your hand or within easy reach.

In a world where we can access just about anything on our electronic devices, it's no surprise that we're attached.

But what happens when that attachment turns into an obsession or, worse, a true addiction?

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, is an expert in the field of technology addiction, an area that's only gaining more attention these days. For the past 30 years, he has studied the impact of technology on more than 50,000 children, teens and adults worldwide.​

Perhaps the most eye-catching statistic he has come across is this: The average person checks his or her phone about 60 times a day for a total of 220 minutes — nearly four hours.

Dr. Rosen explains that, in general, technology addiction is the same as any other type of addiction; it becomes a serious problem when you need more of the addictive substance​ – in this instance, it could be social media, surfing, apps, gaming or all of the above – in order to feel the same happiness and satisfaction.​

If you are obsessed with Instagram, you might get an influx of anxiety chemicals that your body strives to reduce by logging into Instagram. We see this type of obsession with smartphones and social media, and it is rampant." – Dr. Larry Rosen, CSU Dominguez Hills​

And, as with any addiction, time away from the activity or substance leads to depression, anxiety or stress, otherwise known as the usual symptoms of withdrawal.​

"Do you find that when you are not doing the addictive activity you are restless and keep thinking about doing it?" Rosen asks. If so, this is a common sign of addiction.


To get in the habit of healthy technology use, he suggests creating a schedule and allotting a certain amount of time for certain devices.

We asked Rosen about what technology addiction really means, the state of the research, and how parents can help protect their kids from a problematic relationship with their devices.

 

Q: Can someone really be addicted to technology?

Dr. Larry Rosen: Yes, of course they can. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association's most recent "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" – which gives symptoms for all psychiatric disorders – included 'Online Gaming Addiction' in the appendix, suggesting that with more research it will be included as a full-blown psychiatric disorder in the next version. This also reflects that video gaming, in all its incarnations, is the most prone to addiction. Further, we are also seeing the same types of symptomatology with smartphones.

 

Q: What do you find most fascinating about this research?

Dr. Rosen: The most interesting thing to me has been separating addiction from obsession. People use the terms interchangeably and they are not the same.

Addiction is the need to do an activity to gain feelings of pleasure which, in terms of biochemistry, means the brain and organs need to release more chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, which provide a feeling of pleasure. Obsession is an anxiety-based issue where your brain and other organs are releasing anxiety-based chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol that make you feel uncomfortable and anxious; your brain tells you to do an activity to get rid of those chemicals.

If you are obsessed with Instagram, you might get an influx of anxiety chemicals that then put your body in a state where it strives to reduce anxiety by logging into Instagram. We see this type of obsession with devices like smartphones and websites like social media, and it is rampant.

This is why people feel those phantom pocket vibrations even when they do not carry their phone in their pocket. It is also why younger people carry their phones in their hands rather than in a pocket or purse, so they can immediately feel a vibration.

 

Q: Can technology addiction turn into a serious problem?

Dr. Rosen: Yes, if it is a true addiction, it will make you continue to do the behavior more and more as you habituate to the rewards; it may also lead to loss of relationships and jobs or school performance. If it is an obsession, it is equally harmful because our bodies do not do well with anxiety-based chemicals flooding through and making us feel signs of discomfort and anxiety.

 

Q: If someone suspects he/she may be addicted, what can they do?

Dr. Rosen: It depends on how serious it has become. Changing your behavior can change your addictive propensities. Having said that, a true addiction takes time to fix.

 

Q: How can parents ensure they're not teaching or allowing damaging technology habits with their kids?  

Dr. Rosen: We are terrible role models and are using technology with our kids in a way that promotes their future obsession. Two-year-olds are handed phones or tablets to calm them down and put them to sleep. At dinner, at home, or in a restaurant, parents routinely give their children technology to keep them busy. Same with car rides and family television time. Parents are losing valuable parent-child interaction time. These should all be tech-free zones.