A world connected by addiction

Take a midday stroll through campus, resist the urge to pull out your phone, and do some people-watching. You will need all of your fingers and toes, and probably those of a friend to count the people you see navigating the pedestrian traffic with their eyes down, glued to smartphones.

“I’ve seen people bump into each other because they were looking down at their phones,” says Jose Santiago, a first-year nursing student at Santa Monica College.

ICD, IUD and ITAA are acronyms that have emerged over the past few years, pointing to a new and potentially handicapping form of addiction. They stand for Internet Compulsive Disorder, Internet Use Disorder, and Internet and Technology Addiction Anonymous.

As early as 1998, back when less than four percent of humanity was online, researchers were already looking into whether the Internet could be addictive in the same way that drugs, alcohol and gambling can be.

Since then, a worldwide explosion of Internet-capable mobile devices has helped transform the digital landscape into something vastly different: what some are calling a hyper-connected world. Today, nearly 40 percent of the world's population — roughly three billion peopleare connected to the Internet on a regular basis. In developed countries alone, as much as 80 percent of the population is on the Internet.

A 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people, ages 8-18, spend more than seven hours each day with entertainment media like MP3 players, phones and computers, and that they are able to pack in nearly 11 hours worth of media content during that time because of their multitasking prowess.

There is a growing concern from professionals in diverse fields that stretch from business advisers to technology experts that some of us may be developing dependencies associated with online activities like social networking and Internet gaming.

The American Psychiatric Association decided this year to include “Internet Use Disorder” in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the premiere mental classification list used by mental-health professionals of all disciplines.

David Phillips, SMC professor of psychology, thinks the idea that we can call our continual connectedness a disorder is silly. He does caution, however, that being buried in a phone can, “keep us out of the moment,” and lead to a diminished quality of life.

“People who are constantly glued to their phones miss out on a full, authentic experience with others and the world around them,” he says.

Phillips recommends limiting smartphone use to 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening.

Phillips contends that endless streams of information and incessant updating keep our brains in a state of constant alert, leading to elevated dopamine levels that serve as our reward circuits. He says that we are mismatched because these reward circuits evolved, in part, out of a necessity for people to be social and communal.

“Our evolutionary pathways have set us up to be seduced by this technology,” says Phillips.

Last year, researchers from the International Media & the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland challenged 1,000 college students from around the world to abstain from using all forms of media for 24 hours and then to blog about their experiences in a study dubbed "The World Unplugged."

According to the study’s website, most of the students who participated were unable to go a full day without interacting with media of some kind.

A Chinese student observed that, “I was unable to describe the feelings without media, just like something important was drawn out from my life.”

I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone,” wrote a student from the U.S.

“I know I’m addicted to mine,” says Celisa Walker, a first-year chemistry major at SMC, of her Android device. She acknowledges how distracting her phone can be and is making a conscious effort to scale back the amount of time she spends on it.

“I don’t want my phone to take away from the personal interactions I have with others,” she says.

Professor Phillips speculates that today we find ourselves more and more alone together as we increase the time we spend tethered to our devises.

“The use of smartphones keeps people in touch in a very superficial way,” he says.

Increasingly, people have been reexamining their obsessions with smartphones and looking for ways to disconnect, at least temporarily.

The Huffington Post, for example, maintains a thread "Unplugging" devoted to stories of retreat from the iPhone and tips for those who seek refuge from the digital now.

Technology consultant and blogger, Patrick Rhone, predicts that, “2013 will be the year of opt-out. That disconnection will become hipster cool. More and more people will be replacing smart phones with dumb ones.”

But this might just be wishful thinking from those with nostalgia for the days of handwritten notes and analog-phone calls – people who recall an alternative existence. For Generation Y and beyond, it may be that digital life is part and parcel of life itself.

Ana Rivera, a high school senior who plans to attend SMC in the fall, says she has not left home without her phone since middle school.

“I can’t live without it,” she says. “I feel like something is missing when I don’t have my phone.”