When Dr. David Greenfield began sounding the alarm about the danger of technology addiction in the mid-’90s, he was so far ahead of his time that few people took him seriously. “People thought I was crazy,” he says while sitting in his West Hartford office at the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, which he founded. He still recalls what some of his detractors told him. Their suggestions included: “Go back to medical school” and “Get a job at McDonald’s.” Others called him a “Luddite.”
“They asked: ‘How can you be addicted to a thing?’ I said, ‘It’s not a thing, it’s a process. It’s a way to get to a destination. And that’s addictive.’ ”
Twenty-five years later, Greenfield, who is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, has every right to say: “I told you so.” But he’s too busy treating addicted patients and doing more research into what is now a widely recognized problem.
“Some people think we at this center are against technology and the internet and video games,” Greenfield says. “We’re not. Look around my office; I’ve got seven screens. Our only concern is when technology use hijacks a person, keeping somebody from having a balanced life. You have to ask yourself: ‘Is this impacting my life in a significant, negative way?’ ”
Greenfield, who wrote the book Virtual Addiction in 1999, notes: “When I started focusing on this, the internet was brand new. We didn’t have untethered use of Wi-Fi. There wasn’t the ease of access. What we know about addiction is this: the more accessible or available it is, the more likely it can be abused. The faster you can get access, the more addictive it becomes.” Greenfield isn’t too modest to say: “I was one of the first doctors in the country to talk about the relationship between internet addiction and dopamine,” the neurochemical that controls the pleasure center in our brains. When dopamine is released, it feels good and we want more of whatever is boosting our dopamine levels.
Greenfield calls the smartphone “the world’s smallest slot machine,” and the internet itself the largest. He explains: “When you go on a slot machine and pull the handle, you don’t know what you’re gonna get and when and how much you might win. That’s ‘the maybe factor.’ The brain loves ‘the maybe factor.’ It’s the anticipation of the potential of winning.”
Greenfield adds: “Intermittent and anticipated rewards via notifications produce elevations of dopamine. When you get a notification, you get a little buzz, ding or bell that tells you there’s a reward waiting. The elevation of dopamine from anticipated reward is twice as high as the actual reward itself. The intermittent reinforcements from our internet-based technologies are potentially habit-forming and addictive.”
Greenfield points out what happens when you go online: “You check the news, sports, your emails, something you might buy. Every time it’s a dynamic and variable experience. You never know what you’re gonna get. This reinforces the dopamine hit.”
Has he seen more addiction to technology because of the COVID lockdown? “Not really yet. People are reporting ‘screen stress,’ the prolonged stress of being on the screen too long every day. But that hasn’t translated into treatment. People are preoccupied with financial worries, getting the kids to school, work issues. But we are seeing a lot more depression and anxiety. People are uncertain about the future.”
Greenfield’s center also treats addiction to pornography; he says “pornography has been at record levels of consumption during COVID. It was already one-third of all internet searches. The pornography companies are bringing in more money than the NFL.”
Greenfield says a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s have become addicted to pornography “because now they’ve got a portable peep show.” Again, it’s ease of access.
“You check the news, sports, your emails, something you might buy. Every time it’s a dynamic and variable experience. You never know what you’re gonna get. This reinforces the dopamine hit."
While acknowledging “adolescents have a greater tendency to addiction in general, not just technology,” Greenfield notes: “I see people getting into trouble who are in their mid-to-late 20s or older. I got a call today from someone who’s 29. I see people whose jobs are in jeopardy because of overuse of the internet, including pornography, or overusing smartphones at work. These are not kids. Some of them are being fired.”
When asked to describe a typical case of technology addiction that he treats, Greenfield offers what he calls “an amalgam” in order to preserve confidentiality: “An individual in his mid-to-late 20s who has flunked out of college two or three times because they can’t stop looking at YouTube or Reddit or playing video games. That’s almost our bread and butter. They’re not eating well, not taking care of their bodies, not doing schoolwork, not exercising. That’s pretty typical.”
Greenfield says that most people, including him, struggle not to become addicted to technology. “This is not a piece of cake for me either. I have to work it out like anybody else. My sons (ages 23 and 26) would probably tell you that. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve spent too much money on Amazon because of the ease of access and quick delivery.”
Greenfield has a two-page sheet offering tips to control technology use. At the top of the list: “No screen (phones, tablets, laptops, TV, etc.) in bedrooms where children or teens sleep. When they go to bed, the device should be elsewhere. The mere presence of a phone nearby will increase a stress hormone [cortisol].”
And this for all of us: “Never use any screen one hour before bed. Viewing screens changes circadian rhythms and sleep patterns and increases risk of inadequate sleep.”
Also: “Never have the phone out during meals in restaurants. The smartphone is not an eating utensil!”
Greenfield also advises: “Learn to tolerate boredom. That’s the gateway to creativity and social/interpersonal motivation. If we are always seeking instant distraction, we never develop our internal self-soothing skills and the desire to extend beyond ourselves.”
Greenfield notices he sleeps best “when I read before I go to sleep.”
Overall, he says, “You have to make a value-based decision. Who do you want to determine how you spend your time on this planet? Do you want Apple or Verizon to make that decision? Or do you want to make that decision?”