There have been so many advances in technology in the last 20 years, it sometimes boggles my mind. I can actually remember a time before Facebook, iPads, and even smart phones. I am very grateful for many aspects of new technology. I can access pharmacology databases to check for drug interactions, download a new library book, find new recipes, and communicate quickly with family and friends. These things enhance my work and bring me closer to loved ones. But when it’s overused, technology can lead to distraction and avoidance. I’m talking about you, Facebook…
Recently, I found myself becoming one of those people who had to have her phone in her hand. When waiting for an appointment, I would mindlessly scroll through Facebook. If I tried to just sit and be silent I would get fidgety and feel bored. I see now that was a big warning sign: my brain was getting something from this activity that it missed when I tried to stop. When I write it out like that, I can clearly see the parallels to addictive behaviors. I felt compelled to be on Facebook, I would put off other things in order to go online, and I felt uncomfortable if I didn’t have my phone with me at all times. Scary.
The new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) was published last year. This book compiles all the research about psychiatric disorders and gives us a framework for diagnosing these conditions. In the DSM 5, internet addiction is listed in the appendix as a condition needing more research. This was controversial, as many mental health professionals see it as a true behavioral addiction that may require intervention and treatment. I have seen signs in patients (and in myself!) that certain types of internet use can easily become compulsive. There are also imaging studies showing that the reward center of the brain is stimulated by Facebook “likes”, and that dopamine, a brain chemical associated with reward and pleasure, is released when you receive and reply to a Facebook notification. This is same pleasure and reward center that conditions other addictive behaviors. So what can we do?
When I noticed that I was spending too much time online, I decided to remove Facebook from my phone. In fact, I made a decision not to go on that website at all for a while. I can’t tell you how many times I went to click the place where that app used to be on my phone, or opened the website before remembering my decision and shutting it down. And yes, I did feel fidgety and bored sometimes. But I already know the perfect cure for these uncomfortable feelings. When I follow my own advice and use time spent waiting to practice mindfulness and reconnect with the present, I find that this moment is filled with things to observe. I can sit and watch my thoughts, noticing them and allowing them to pass by naturally without getting attached. Or I can do a body scan, noticing sensations in my face, hands and feet. Or I can listen intently to sounds around me, allowing them to arise and fade away like I’m listening to a piece of music. All of these techniques will lead to relaxation, and ultimately a greater tolerance for the discomfort of boredom. Facebook certainly can’t promise that!
I ultimately decided not to eliminate Facebook altogether, because I would miss interacting with some good friends. But, I have had to change my behavior. I won’t add it back on my phone. I check it only once per day in the evening, for a limited amount of time, and I turn it off if I find myself getting frustrated or annoyed rather than enjoying the things I’m reading. If you feel you’re overly attached to technology in some way, consider setting similar guidelines for yourself: block problem websites, set an online timer, and schedule specific times each day to check email and social media. I also strongly recommend turning off all email and website “alerts,” as they only condition us to keep checking. I hope these limits will keep me from getting too involved again. I do think it’s working already, because I left the house without my phone on Saturday. I didn’t even notice until I got home!