Technology Addiction

by Williesha Morris (originally published Oct 2014)

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When Dr. Mark Tremblay needs to take a call for business or personal reasons, he’s a bit old-fashioned. He has never used a smartphone or a cell phone.

“I’m certainly not a (technology) addict. I don’t own a smartphone or a cell phone. I’m what some would call a Luddite,” said Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

If he missed a phone call from home while he was at work, he’d return the call when he could. He doesn’t feel less connected to his family. In fact, quite the opposite. He hasn’t missed medical emergencies or important events with his four children. “You know what? I was there for the firsts.”

As an executive, Tremblay is an anomaly. He isn’t one of the estimated 6 billion people who take advantage of mobile phone access. He manages to get his job done and, he said, represent the healthy lifestyle he wants to model for his department and his family. He’s proof a modern, successful executive isn’t tethered to technology.

Tremblay has had several senior positions and excelled in research, but he isn’t completely averse to technology. He uses computers, and his wife and family have cell phones (though they don’t have data plans).

But what if an executive’s job is within the technology sector? Naturally, stepping away from technology may be a more difficult thing to accomplish.

Jessica Greenwalt is the founder and CEO of graphic design and development firm Pixelkeet, located in the heart of Silicon Valley—San Francisco. She lives and breathes tech. In fact, she was named one of the top 10 women to watch in tech by Inc. Magazine. She uses a Windows Surface tablet, iPad, iPhone, plus desktop and laptop computers in her everyday life.

“I don’t maintain balance. It’s very common to everyone in San Francisco working in the tech industry,” she said. “Everyone is attached to their mobile devices, whether it’s dating, getting food, getting a ride anywhere. Everything you can do on a device. That’s the norm. This is just how things are done.”

Greenwalt said she definitely has a technology addiction. Part of this need is because she is an entrepreneur. As a start-up founder, it can be difficult to not constantly focus on work, even during her off time.

“You can’t escape it. You’re passionate about it,” Greenwalt said. “I do what I do because I love it.” And that means taking work home and always having a device on hand to stay in touch and keep track. She recognizes some of the common and unhealthy hazards in San Francisco with this kind of behavior. She knows increased social media use, in particular, has been known to cause depression, and always having a device on hand can lead to less real interaction.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula is conducting research on the ramifications of social media on mental health. She said the phrase “technology addiction” is one that doctors have been grappling with. She said more brain imaging research needs to be done to see if there’s an actual physiological connection.

Being unable to stop is similar to an addiction. It’s “engaging in a behavior that is typically harmful to a degree.” If the problem is an impediment in their lives and they cannot stop themselves, if the person has failing health or is losing time away from relationships or a job, then it does meet the criteria of an addiction.

“How is it getting in the way of their life? Is it the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you do before bed?” Durvasula said.

Psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss doesn’t completely ascribe to the theory that this is a true addiction. He said “we pathologize everything” and that if it’s not destructive, it shouldn’t be an issue. He noted the lack of true withdrawal and physiological symptoms as one reason. He thinks this desire to be attached to technology is a dependency, where a person gets used to something that served a purpose and that he or she would miss if they no longer had it. It’s because social media and technology satisfies a happiness need by producing hormones similar to those felt when eating or having sex.

Both Reiss and Durvasula said people suffer from what’s known as FOMO or “fear of missing out.” Technology use could also be a person’s way of avoiding their real problems.

Many times, Reiss said, a person will say offhand they have an addiction to technology but don’t really make any changes. And, for the most part, it can be benign. People will say “I know I’m really wasting my time. I’d rather be doing other things,” he said. Unlike a gambling or pornography addiction, there’s not much harm in, for instance, looking at too many cute cats on the Internet.

So whether or not this is a true addiction, what can be done to combat this behavior? Reiss said to focus not on the behavior itself, but what the behavior is costing that person. If it’s affecting family time or work, it’s time to adjust. He suggested completing an activities diary to see just how much time is being spent on a smartphone or other device then asking, “Is the usage constructive or has it crossed the line to being destructive?”

Durvasula’s family puts their devices in a basket when it’s family time, and she suggested not using social media one hour before bed. Because executives tend to live and die by their phones and perhaps not get as much sleep, checking the phone before bed can cause agitation and further insomnia.

“Ideally, you should disconnect the whole time if you’re at home with your family,” she said. It’s best to do a gradual ramp down. Perhaps one “digital detox weekend” or no device usage for two hours every night. She also suggested adding healthy distractions such as exercise, spending time with others and cultivating other interests.

As an executive you should ask, “What are you modeling for other people in your world? You’d better set that tone,” Durvasula said.

This is how Tremblay stays motivated. His job is to model healthy living and this includes overcoming the “omnipresence of screens” in a child’s life, along with other poor behaviors such as staying inactive. He takes calls standing up. The department utilizes a “walking meeting” calendar where people can reserve time slots and use a local walking map within the calendar to determine a route.

Greenwalt hosts get-togethers with friends a few times a week. And, no, it doesn’t involve binge-watching their favorite TV show. They get creative; they make crafts, create greeting cards, knit or sew.

When she’s out with friends she doesn’t consult her phone every few minutes. She gives people her full attention.

“I’ve seen people out on dates and they’ll break out their phone and take a call on a date. Who does that? That’s terrible.” Greenwalt added Bluetooth headsets and Google Glass to the mix of inappropriate devices while out.

If you’re an executive over the age of, say 30 or 35, you remember a time when such devices didn’t exist. They weren’t needed then, so why are they so critical now? Tremblay said we have conditioned ourselves into thinking we can’t do anything or make any decisions without constantly being in the know. He said the “intuitive seduction of convenience” technology provides is controlling our lives and killing us.

He does look back, though, when technology wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now. Road trips with children are a lot easier today than they were when his children were young. He thinks technology is definitely needed when you’re in a constrained situation like that.

“You can only sing ‘Row, row, row, your boat’ so many times,” he said with a laugh.

Williesha Morris is a virtual assistant and a freelance writer that helps other small business owners and freelancers find their writing voice. You can find her at and on Twitter @willieshamorris



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