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Battling Digital Addictions

An expert offers a cautionary note about "CrackBerries" and all the other convenient devises that keep employees wired. There are psychological and physical problems that can result from overuse, and it is up to HR leaders to help direct corporate policy in this regard.

Sunday, July 1, 2007
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Jay Parker and I founded Internet/Computer Addiction Services in 1998. In the years since then, we have developed outpatient treatment programs for sex/love addicts and video game addicts, we train professionals who want to better understand and work effectively with computer addiction, and we teach when the opportunity arises. Because we are known for our pioneering work in this field, we are contacted regularly by the media.

I was recently invited to attend a seminar on the subject of solitude. Dr. Mara Adelman, a professor at Seattle University, had taught an undergraduate course on solitude and discovered that her students could not tolerate four days without their electronic communication devices. This news made it into the Seattle Times and she received several e-mails from readers, two of which I will paraphrase here:

As I transitioned from my life as a college student to life in the business world, I became increasingly dependent on electronic media to get me through the day.

I'm not able to count the number of times I check my e-mail because it never leaves my desktop. I spend countless hours either talking on my BlackBerry or text messaging and my mp3 player is constantly playing in the background.

And then there's the Internet. Whether it's Facebook, reading articles or simply surfing, my computer is a constant glow in front of me.

Do you think our frantic and obsessive attachment to our communication devices is a function of our personal need to feel included in a society, or is it the byproduct of years and years of brainwashing from corporations that stand to profit from our unnatural behavior?

Or is it something else? If I were to go on a four day fast from my electronic media I would probably get fired from my job. Not only do we become dependent on our BlackBerries, etc, people become dependent on us using them.

Someone else wrote:

I don't own an iPod, don't have a personal cell-phone (I have a work one but have not used it in more than two weeks), don't watch TV and I am the CEO of a business with over 100 million in annual revenue, 425 employees, and 28 branches. Somehow, I manage to be very successful without these things. I take walks in the woods everyday and go biking every weekend.

The seminar attendees discussed these e-mails as we considered the meaning of solitude and its place (or lack thereof) in our lives. We all wanted to ask the CEO if his business policies encourage his 425 employees to enjoy being unwired as he is.

I am a psychotherapist specializing in computer-based addictions. Growing numbers of people call for appointments because they, or someone in the family, clearly have an addiction, usually to pornography, video games or online chat.

Many others who call, suffering from depression, anxiety, marital difficulties, etc., have "wired" lives that are so stressful they are spiraling out of control. Many people recognize the connection between the degree to which they are "wired" and the symptoms about which they complain, yet, like the e-mailer above, feel powerless to disconnect.

Just today, I had a conversation with a man who works in the software industry. I told him about writing this article. He rolled his eyes and passionately expressed how much he "hates" his BlackBerry.

He feels that he is always at its disposal, that he can never truly leave work. He estimates that he easily works 60 to 70 hrs a week at his office and at home. He is experiencing depression, marital conflict, and terrible sadness that his young children hardly know him.

He does not really know how much he is actually expected to work like this, and how much is what he chooses to do because he is comfortable (in a miserable sort of way) with his wired existence.

The brain's configuration of neuroconnections, or "neuronet", is determined by what we repeatedly ask the brain to do. If we are constantly "wired" to the Internet, that is what our brains become used to. We can lose comfort with the "unplugged" activities, which make up the rest of life.

The man I have just described is not enjoying his wife, his children or his country home. If he could completely unplug after a work day and stay unplugged until he was back in the office, he would, over time, develop a neuronet that allowed him to enjoy slowing down, being more connected to his family, attuning himself to the natural beauty around him and being more physically active (thus, helping him control his Type II diabetes!).

It is, of course, the convenience of PDAs that allows them to be so intrusive in our lives. 

You can bring it with you to the restaurant and take "just a second" to respond to an email between the appetizer and the entrée. If you are a high-school teacher, you will notice a laptop but maybe not the handheld device that holds the attention of students at the back of the classroom.

As a parent, you might feel justified in making a quick response to an e-mail that comes in on your PDA while you are watching a movie with your kids because you can still be physically present with them even though you are psychologically engaged elsewhere.

All of these are examples of ways more and more of us are losing our sense of boundaries, losing the valuable ability to safeguard our personal lives.

Why are these boundaries so valuable? Why should we care?

Most of us are aware of the long-term health consequences of chronic stress, where the adrenal system continuously pumps adrenaline and other stress hormones. Many diseases have been linked to this state of chronic arousal (for example, cancer and heart disease). Staying wired can easily prevent us from finding the relaxation our bodies require.

Psychologically, the lack of a separate, private space means less time for self-care (e.g. introspection, creativity and the pursuit of hobbies) and the care of others whom we love.

Research makes clear that to be content with our lives we need to feel intimately connected with others. "Limbic resonance" is a term used to describe the beneficial, regulating influence of one loving human being on another. Their energetic harmony allows for the physiological and emotional systems of each to function well.

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Without limbic resonance, we begin to feel isolated and depressed. When "being wired" interferes with the fulfillment of our need for limbic resonance, we have a problem. Ironically, connection to others through cyberspace may appear to fulfill this need, but, in fact, does not.

Research has shown a strong correlation between the amounts of time spent online and reports of depression. Cyber chat is to our need for limbic resonance as sugar is to our need for nourishment. The fulfillment of the need is illusory; we are left starving.

Add to this picture the problem of addiction. For a behavior to be considered an addiction, it must be compulsive, create a sense of relief or euphoria, induce withdrawal symptoms when the addict is deprived of the drug or behavior, and is engaged in despite negative consequences.

The addiction to PDAs has become commonplace. The term "crackberry" has become so widespread that Webster's dictionary named "crackberry" the "New Word of the Year" for 2006.

In early 2004, there were a million BlackBerry subscribers. By early 2007, there were 8 million subscribers. The trend is clear.

       

The question is: are you going to be part of the problem, or part of the solution? You are policy makers. It will be up to you to influence the direction taken by corporate America.

The once sacred boundaries around personal life are being quickly eroded. Are the long-term interests of business served by this trend?

I would argue they are not. Healthy individuals make a healthy workforce and a healthy society. We all need to relax, to connect, to create. If we can do that, we can bring ourselves, rejuvenated and energetic, back to work every day, offering the best of who we are to our employers and, at the end of the day, to our families and friends.

If this is to happen, we must develop a guarded and healthy relationship to these technologies. You can help by educating the companies for whom you work. Help them understand the detrimental effects on their workforce when convenient technologies like BlackBerries intrude on personal time. And support employees who want to claim their right to have a personal life that is truly separate from work.

 

Hilarie Cash is a co-founder of Internet/Computer Addiction Services and has a private practice in Redmond, Wash.  She has appeared on ABC News, KOMO, KING TV, PBS, the BBC, and in print in the Seattle Times, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, and the New York Times. She can be reached at icasnow@aol.com or (425) 861-5504.

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