DALLAS — Michael Decker is always reachable. The 42-year-old creative director from Dallas sleeps with his phone on his night stand. From when he wakes up and checks it until he sets it down before bed, his phone is with him.
"It's an intrusion into your own private life," he says. "It leads to burnout if you can never turn it off."
Decker, who owns an iPhone, a laptop and an iPad, uses his gadgets for work and play. Though he makes a point not to look at his phone during dinner, he says his friends still chide him. Put that thing down, they say.
"They always have a point," he says. "It becomes more important than truly interacting with friends and family."
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For most of the population, technology is a tool to enhance our lives. Our phone beeps, and we feel compelled to check whatever new text, email or tweet has come our way. Decker's behavior is not uncommon, nor is it particularly unsettling.
Recently, indications of something more malicious have started to rumble. The Counseling Center at the University of Texas-Dallas has a page on its Web site dedicated to computer addiction. A quick search of Yahoo Groups returns more than 100 groups related to gaming addictions.
Search further, and extreme texting and gaming become more than an annoying character trait in a child or girlfriend. Excessive use can lead to addictive behavior, says therapist Cosette Rae, who launched a technology rehabilitation center in the Seattle area. She says her clients, far from being isolated cases, are part of a newly recognized problem: Technology has the potential to cause addictive behavior, experts say.
The evidence is in the existence of Rae's clinic, the ReSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program, which she says is the first program of its kind in the United States, although similar programs are available in South Korea and Great Britain.
Therapists and counselors are petitioning the American Psychological Association to list technology addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the primary system used to classify and diagnose mental disorders.
Others say that even if technology use isn't extreme enough to be considered dependency, it can harm a user's mental health and relationships.
Clearly, not every tech user is an addict masking some other mental health issue. Like food, technology is a crucial part of our daily lives. Texting during the day and watching TV at night don't mean a person has an addiction, but it is important to evaluate how often and to what extent we use technology, experts say.
Like other substance and behavioral addictions, technology use has a spectrum. While patients at ReSTART struggle with addiction and dependency, most people engage with technology in a healthy manner. Once that interaction creates negative consequences in multiple parts of a person's life, though, that relationship becomes abusive, says Jason Northrup, a researcher at Texas A&M University- Central Texas, in Killeen.
Researchers are finding that heightened technology use triggers the same sites in the brain that are activated through substance abuse and non-chemical addictive activities such as gambling, Northrup says.
Excessive technology use also can cause changes in dopamine levels — the part of the brain regulating rewards, punishments and euphoria and also linked with alcohol and drug use, experts say.
"Most researchers out there agree that the effects are often very, very similar to what you would see in a chemical addiction," Northrup says.
For example, a recent study at the University of Maryland asked students to go a day without electronic technology of any kind — phones, TVs, computers — and record their experiences.
Students used literal terms of addiction to describe their dependencies, citing feelings of anxiety, isolation, depression and even physical reactions such as increased heart rate.
Low-level abuse can manifest itself in various areas of a person's daily life. Parents might find themselves spending less time with their kids, instead responding to emails and phone calls. General wellness suffers as well. Houston counselor John O'Neill points to small, everyday changes such as no longer having to get up and cross a room to answer the home phone. Childhood obesity is rising as kids spend more and more time with screens instead of outside playing. Other studies show a link between the rise in attention deficit disorder and increased technology use.
Video gaming invaded the life of Jun Kristofferson, 22, and led him in June to check into rehab.
The California resident had been gaming eight hours a day. The former straight-A college student withdrew from classes. He had a job for a bit but stopped going. He lived at a friend's place, rent free, and spent day after day gaming.
"There were months of just playing but not even enjoying playing," Kristofferson said by phone. "Not knowing what to do. Having no direction. I was just lost."
When evaluating a potential case of technology addiction at ReSTART, Rae looks at all domains of someone's life, not just how many hours he is spending online.
"We are mental health workers looking at a client's entire history and how technology fits into that picture," Rae said. "Often, there's something in their life leading to this particular escape mechanism."
For example, patients often struggle with other issues such as depression, social anxiety or Asperger's syndrome. For Kristofferson, who started using technology at an early age when he got a Nintendo for Christmas, his excessive gaming is linked with depression and family issues.
The 45-day program costs $14,500, plus other potential fees.