With digital devices and Internet access available almost everywhere, it is no surprise that many people are beginning to find themselves rarely “unplugged.” By not unplugging, there is a greater risk for sleep deprivation, deterioration of social skills, depression, anxiety, relationship stress and a decrease in productivity. Information speedily available, entertainment right at our fingertips, and the ability to stay connected socially 24/7 with people from anywhere in the world is an astonishing indicator at how advanced our world has become. The contributions that technology has given us are remarkable, however if not used with discipline and with a balanced approach one can easily develop an addiction to it.
Digital devices and Internet use cultivate a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, which is why so many people use them on such a regular basis. Social media causes people to feel validated and provides a sense of belonging. Internet browsing elicits the sense of being informed and connected to the world at large. Text and email notifications promote feelings of importance, excitement and being bonded to others. Digital and Internet interaction is alluring because it provides stimulating pleasure and excitement to the user.
The “Nucleus Accumbens,” also known as the “pleasure center” of the brain, controls every experience of pleasure a person has. This part of the brain is activated through a process of receiving dopamine (a chemical messenger) when a person engages in gaming, texting, social media interactions, and browsing the web. The brain is at risk when digital use becomes excessive or constant because its dopamine levels become higher and higher. When the “pleasure center” becomes overloaded with dopamine, the feelings of joy and pleasure will eventually begin to diminish, causing the person to seek after even greater stimulation in order to achieve pleasure and joy again. This is what causes people to spend countless hours on social media, checking their phones for text or emails excessively, losing track of hours and sometimes days from gaming, gambling and viewing pornography. If a person is not giving their “pleasure center” enough rest, this flooding of dopamine can create the same addictive tendencies and damage to the brain as powerful drugs.
The Nucleus Accumbens is not the only area of the brain that digital and Internet overuse impacts. In the book The Digital Invasion: How Technology is Shaping You and Your Relationships, Dr. Archibald D. Hart and Dr. Sylvia Hart Frejd (2013) write, “Excessive digital use overloads the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that operates self-regulation. Because of this inability to self-regulate, we spend more time in our digital life. The more time spent in the digital world, the less ability we have to self-regulate.” Excessive technology use can cause the brain to enter an addictive cycle of pleasure seeking and lack of self-regulation. The risk is great for developing a lifestyle that gives the illusion of connectedness, but a lifestyle that is actually addicting, disconnected from reality, and thereby developing other mental health issues.
In order for people to obtain a healthy relationship with their technology use, they must first be willing to take an inventory of themselves through an honest evaluation of their digital usage and how it is impacting their life and relationships. Most people are not aware or mindful of how much of their life is spent looking at screens, or they are in denial of the negative effects their digital use is causing. Reclaiming balance and discipline of technology use allows one to utilize and enjoy all the fantastic advantages the digital world has to offer without being enslaved or dependent on it. People who recognize they may have addictive tendencies to devices or Internet use could benefit from seeking psychotherapy for assistance (Hart & Frejd, 2013).
Frejd, S. & Hart, A.D. (2013). The Digital Invasion: How technology is shaping you and your relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks.