Like so many in recovery for an addiction, John focuses on the little things to get through the day. He wakes up early and throws himself into mundane tasks like frying up eggs for his roommates, checking the bus schedule, and planning his commute into the outpatient offices of his rehabilitation center. At the office, many afternoons are a whirlwind of 12-step meetings and the slow process of reintegration into a normal daily routine, the biggest of which is his quest to find a part-time job.
For John, the job search is particularly fraught. There’s a resume to polish, references to seek, job boards to scan, and postings to read. But all the daunting administrative duties pale in comparison to the biggest hurdle: directly confronting his biggest trigger. Some 13 weeks after checking into an online detox facility for technology addiction, John had to go online.
“I avoided even signing up for our computer access,”John told me, referring to the restricted “reentry version” of the internet that his Restart rehabilitation program gives detox graduates. “I was really paranoid about falling back into old habits. For a while I just thought, Let’s not risk it right now.”
John’s story is familiar for those recovering from an addictive relationship to technology. Unlike abstinence-based recovery programs for alcohol and other substances, overcoming this dependency requires addicts to find a way to reintegrate pieces of the technology into their lives. “Computers and smartphones and the internet are everywhere, so you can’t run from it for very long,” John confessed when we spoke. And despite the protections — firewalled sites and computer use time limits — the reentry is nerve-wracking. “The only option when you’re overwhelmed is to stop yourself, step away for a moment, and breathe,” he said.
While many of us may feel like we have unhealthy relationships with the screens, notifications, and platforms in our lives, the very concept of technology addiction is controversial. Experts and academics still offer conflicting theories as to the size and scope of the problem and whether it rises to the level of a psychiatric condition. Internet gaming disorder — one of the most prevalent forms of technology addiction — was referenced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a “condition of further study,” and there’s suggestion that even the most extreme addictions to technology are substantively different than those to an ingested chemical.
But visiting John and other patients at Restart rehabilitation in northern Washington state, as I did this summer, offers a convincing argument as to the legitimacy of technology addiction. Like John, many in Restart’s 10-week program had their lives and relationships upended and ruined by abusive relationships with video games, the internet, and social media. Many at Restart described it as a vicious cycle of depression and screen-enabled dopamine feedback loops: Depression caused them to retreat into the fleeting pleasures of games, forums, and virtual interaction. But the bingeing only created more isolation and thus more depression. And so the cycle repeated.
After 13 weeks in detox, John’s treatment — for an addiction to social media that led to weight loss and dropping out of school — is in a second phase that’s best described as stabilization. His life is still heavily monitored, and he’s surrounded by Restart professionals and other detox program graduates. In the next six months to a year, he’ll likely begin a full reentry phase with no restrictions on what he can browse or access online. His reintegration comes at a pivotal moment for technology companies, which for the first time appear to be grappling with the notion that the tools they’ve built might be making us deeply unhappy. Just this year, Facebook has chosen to optimize for on a new metric called “Time Well Spent,” while Apple and Google have introduced new digital health tools like “Screen Time” and “Digital Wellbeing,” designed to let users quantify and then set limits on the time they spend on their phones.
These are small first steps, but they could have an impact. There’s something powerful about seeing your tech usage data laid out matter-of-factly — you can’t hide from it. Here’s mine after a recent work trip: Thirty-one hours of usage over seven days. Four hours and 27 minutes a day. Seventeen hours in social networking apps. One hundred and twenty-four phone pickups and 82 notifications a day. Just typing it out makes me feel uncomfortable. What feels like normal, even harmless, behavior in the moment looks quite different once it’s quantified. Sifting through my statistics, it’s hard to keep telling myself this is the behavior of somebody with a healthy relationship with his phone.
For John, Big Tech’s new usage management tools are akin to offering a band-aid for a severed limb. “I’m sorry, but it’s the same neural pathways lighting up [while using technology] as if I was snorting blow,” he said (actions including likes and retweets on social media provide dopamine bursts not unlike the consumption of a drug). “An addiction is an addiction, and if you’re going to keep building and promoting these products, there should be an addiction label on them,” he told me. “And why aren’t these companies pointing people to places where they can get help if they feel out of control?”
Despite feeling frustrated that some don’t take his addiction seriously, John’s second phase of recovery has brought clarity. Restricted browsing means he uses the internet “with a real sense of focus and efficiency.” He’s replaced his old smartphone with a clunky flip phone, which means fewer distractions and being present when he’s outside — a feeling he finds freeing. It’s also thrown the behavior of the rest of us into stark relief.
“It kind of feels like the blind has come off when you see everyone else wandering around glued to their phones,” he said. “I see parents ignoring children on the street for their phones all the time. Even when my parents came to visit, they were checking constantly. And so I told them, ‘Well, isn’t this what you sent me here to deal with — a screen addiction?’”
I could relate to John’s experience. I confessed to him that, since using Apple’s Screen Time calculator, I’d been more aware than usual of my own troubling habits. “Sometimes, Twitter feels like a shackle,” I explained.
“You know, Charlie,” he replied. “I really think you could look into one of the 12-step programs. It might help you more than you think.” ●