Technology addiction: It’s not just for kids. A Q&A with a Rutgers thought leader

Levounis: Determining what is healthy engagement and addictive use can be difficult

China recently made news when it announced it was limiting children to just three hours a week of online game playing. That’s right, a week. Many parents in the U.S. likely would be willing to limit use to just three hours a day.

The bigger thought is this: How many would be willing to admit that they, too, have a digital problem?

Petros Levounis. (Rutgers)

According to the Pew Research Center, about 30% of Americans are almost constantly online, and health officials are concerned about the amount of time both children and adults spend with technology.

This concern only has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people turned to technology for entertainment and information as they spent even more time at home.

Petros Levounis, associate dean at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and author of the book “Technical Addictions,” said the pandemic has increased technology addiction.

Levounis said technology addiction has the same challenge as other addictions: It can be difficult for someone to understand when they have a problem.

“There is functional, healthy engagement with technology — ubiquitous and necessary in our everyday lives — and addictive use,” he said. “And it can be difficult to know when that line has been crossed.”

The good news, Levounis said, is that a majority of people who use technology will not have any problems with it. In fact, they may benefit from it.

The bad news, he said, is that obsessive use of technology could be a sign of another mental health disorder.

“Studies have shown that, as internet addiction worsens, so does the probability of developing a substance use disorder,” he said. “Using technology can become an obsession.

“People start engaging in activities like online gaming, internet auctions, surfing the net, social media, texting or cybersex, and get caught up in the excitement. Soon, the focus shifts from generating feelings of pleasure and reward to being an activity they do to avoid feeling anxious, irritable or miserable.”

Levounis, in a release issued by Rutgers, answered a number of questions about technology addiction:

Q: How has the COVID-19 shutdown contributed to technology addiction?

Petros Levounis: We have noticed emerging addictions. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersex has increased, with online dating apps, text chats and online pornography. Internet gaming, too, has exploded.

One of the most concerning aspects with online gaming is that companies are now using psychology labs to maximize the effectiveness of their products in a way that is highly reminiscent of how the tobacco companies employed chemists to maximize their products’ addictiveness.

Q: How do people know they’re addicted?

PL: The two major red flags are: continued use of technology despite the knowledge of adverse consequences — people say, ‘I know it’s bad for me, but I have to keep doing it’ — and lying to people who are important to you about the frequency of the activity.

Q: If you suspect you or someone you love is addicted to technology, what can you do?  

PL: Do not try to get the person into a rehab to be ‘cured.’ Find a psychiatrist, preferably one who specializes in addiction, who can evaluate the person for a variety of disorders. The person might have depression, anxiety or a more serious psychiatric disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which is masquerading as a technological addiction.

Q: How can parents help their children to use technology wisely?  

PL: Parents need to be good role models and be consistent in setting rules. For example, it is not OK for parents to declare that dinner time is a ‘cell phone-free’ time and then proceed to check emails during meals. If parents take technology out of their children’s bedrooms to promote good sleep hygiene, they should abide by these rules as well.