Anyone who spends their day staring at screens can speak to the modern-day epidemic of eye fatigue. But what is our digital obsession doing to our brains?
Researchers have noted a rise in something called Digital Attention Disorder — the addiction to social networks and computers in general.
How does it work? More than 50 years ago, psychologist B.F. Skinner was experimenting on rats and pigeons, and noticed that the unpredictability of reward was a major motivator for animals. If a reward arrives either predictably or too infrequently, the animal eventually loses interest. But when there was anticipation of a reward that comes with just enough frequency, the animals' brains would consistently release dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that (basically) regulates pleasure.
What does this have to do with the internet? Some researchers believe that intermittent reinforcement — in the form of texts, tweets, and various other social media — may be working on our brains the same way rewards did on Skinner's rats.
"Internet addiction is the same as any other addiction — excessive release of dopamine," says Hilarie Cash, executive director of the reStart program for internet addiction and recovery, a Seattle-area rehab program that helps wean people off the internet. "Addiction is addiction. Whether it's gambling, cocaine, alcohol, or Facebook."
"The vast majority of the American population is mildly addicted to technology, and our clinic treats only very serious cases," she told me in a phone interview. "Most of the people that come are young adult males around the ages of 18 to 30 who spend a lot of time on the internet. Their health is poor, their social relationships have turned to crap, they have no social confidence or real-world friends. They don't date. They don't work."
Internet and video game addiction starts young. Most young men are given computer or video games when they are five or six years old and therefore their childhood development is profoundly wired for these activities. It's quite different to drug addicts and alcoholics who are usually exposed to drugs or alcohol closer to the age of 15. Internet addicts usually have 15 to 20 years of addiction on them due to starting younger.
The problem isn't just young men, either. "Women are getting addicted, too," Cash told me. "Although women usually become addicted later in life and, more often than not, directly to social media, while men are more adept to becoming addicted to multiplayer games. Women seem to juggle addiction and life better than men."
So how does Cash's program work? According to the website: "Our professionally trained clinicians understand technology related process addictions, and the impact problematic use has on life. We work with individuals, couples and families to promote a better understanding of problematic technology use; assist users in discovering the underlying issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, ADHD, learning differences, stress, family relationship issues, and addictions) that may be co-occurring with excessive use patterns; and work together to design an individualized plan to promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle."
Now, at "just under $20,000" for a minimum 45-day internet rehab (60- and 90- day options are available), the reStart program may not be for everyone. Indeed, you could always just... turn off your phone and computer.
Still, the new wave of young internet addicts that Cash describes might be heralding something sinister for future generations: We've all seen the ease at which a toddler can operate an iPhone or iPad. These days, maybe kids are just born addicted to the internet.