The space between our online and offline lives is vanishing. We instant message or video chat instead of meeting up in person. We fire up our iPads or Kindles instead of turning pages of an actual book. Our phones are an appendage. We simply cannot help ourselves: If the digital solution is there, we should use it … right?
Maybe not. The surplus of tech in our lives comes with consequences. The uncontrollable tendency to check email, post Facebook updates, tweet random thoughts, and slap filters on snapshots of trees and our feet can turn from hobby to obsession – or even addiction.
This over-reliance is exactly what digital detox camps hope to alleviate, if not completely rectify. A digital detox camp is exactly what it sounds like; think of it as summer camp for adults, only the main purpose is for you to enter with an open mind and empty, gadget-less pockets. Leave all your button mashing, social media obsessions, and technological dependencies at the door.
But while there’s no denying that everyone deserves to take a break from our hyper-connected, digital world, the question is, are these camps really the best way to do it?
Defining digital addiction and recovery
Before we discuss the merits of digital detox camps, it’s important to talk about the differences between abusing the Internet and digital world and being addicted to it.
“Internet addiction is basically the obsessive or compulsive use of the Internet or other digital media devices – like an iPhone or a smartphone – in a way that creates some negative or deleterious impact in your life,” explains Dr. David Greenfield, PhD, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction (CITA) and renowned expert on Internet and cyber psychology. In order for your Internet and technology user to be considered a legitimate compulsion, it needs to have a debilitating effect on one or more of the major spheres – home life, school or work life, finances, legal status, or health and medical issues. If it doesn’t affect any of those areas in a major and harmful way, according to Greenfield, you’re probably not an addict, but like many people, you may meet the criteria for Internet abuse, which simply is an overuse of technology but not to an extent that it creates a problem in your lives. (And something most of us should probably cop to.)
Each person has a different brain chemistry – that’s why it’s harder for certain people to unplug and easier for others.
In order to meet the criteria for Internet addiction, you spend an excessive amount of time online, leaving you with almost no time for other facets in your life thereby creating a major imbalance. “You may see changes in your physical health. Increases in obesity, sedentary behavior, social isolation, or depression. A decrease in work or school performance. Irritability, mood changes, changes in the way a person relates interpersonally or socially, and more importantly, changes in primary relationships,” says Greenfield.
CITA acknowledges that today, it’s difficult to live without the Internet and that complete abstinence is futile. With that in mind, the center primarily treats virtual addiction by re-training the brain to perceive and use technology in a different way. They also encourage the use of filtering or blocking software that can modulate a person’s online movement. “We have found that if we can get a 5 to 10-second lag between the time that they want ‘the hit’ on the Internet or on the device and the actual ability to get it, the frontal lobes of the brain can kick in and they can actually use better judgment,” Greenfield says.
According to Gemini Adams, an award-winning author and illustrator of the recently released The Facebook Diet: 50 Funny Signs of Facebook Addiction and Ways to Unplug with a Digital Detox (The Unplug Series), our biochemistry is to blame. “Research shows that when the brain receives a new piece of information, the part of the brain that relates to pleasure releases a burst of the neurotransmitter Dopamine,” she says. “Activities that increase the level of Dopamine in the brain are addictive because they generate a feeling of enjoyment.” However, each person has a different brain chemistry – that’s why it’s harder for certain people to unplug and easier for others. “It’s also why conditions such as Facebook Addiction Disorder (F.A.D). Digital Distress Syndrome (D.D.S) and Internet Addiction Disorder (I.A.D) are increasingly becoming recognized as serious conditions that need to be treated by the health and medical communities in certain countries,” says Adams.
Greenfield’s two-day and five-day intensive outpatient programs for patients suffering from Internet, gaming, pornography, social media, and personal device addictions not only involve assessment and identification of addictive behaviors and patterns of use and abuse – it also includes providing a better understanding of psycho-neurological patterns of addiction and how to work with them to create a change, development of a relapse prevention plan, and a real-time life plan to “plug back into life.” The intensive program entails about 20 hours of personalized therapy and strategies that usually take months to accomplish. Follow-up sessions are recommended and may be conducted in person, Skype, or by phone. He also offers Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), a cutting edge technology that uses light, sound, and vibration to create a movement in our brain patterns. EMDR was originally developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD, which has been used successfully in curbing anxiety as well as other mental health and addiction disorders.
Internet and digital addictions are an emerging issue that we’re still learning how to treat – so what’s the difference between the recovery plan described over and a digital detox program?