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Tech addict nation: Can we kick the habit?

Bill Snyder | Oct. 3, 2012
People who can't put down their smartphones and tablets aren't just rude, they're addicts, and the Internet and mobile devices continue to mess with their self-control and attention spans. But there are ways to curb the addiction.


Have you ever felt like you couldn't stop yourself from checking your email or sending a text message, even when it annoyed everyone around you? If you have, you're hardly alone.

I saw that first hand the other night while attending a rare (and expensive) appearance by jazz giant Sonny Rollins here in San Francisco. People all around me were tweeting and checking email and even taking photos, in violation of a very explicit request by the hosts.

My first reaction was to get mad. When I had cooled down, though, I remembered a conversation I had this summer with a Stanford lecturer named Kelly McGonigal, who has written extensively about what she calls tech addiction. "Forget cigarettes and candy. We're becoming addicted to our devices - phones and email and our computers and our iPads," she says.

Yeah. That sounds a little like touchy-feely California-speak, and an excuse for rude, thoughtless behavior. But McGonigal has studied this issue, and says that the response in our brains to gadget-deprivation is similar to the feeling we get when we try to stop smoking or using drugs.

"We're talking about people feeling out of control in relation to some behavior or stimulus or substance, and compelled to use it more than is good for them. They recognize that it is interfering with the quality of their lives; that is a basic definition of an addiction," she says.

McGonigal and other experts have a number of suggestions for kicking tech addiction. Here are two of McGonigal's:

"You need to set a support structure for yourself. In the same way you wouldn't keep junk food in your cabinet if you're trying to improve your health, you should think of ways to put the phone away. Put it in airplane mode or recruit other people to remind you that you made a commitment to not text while driving.

"Second: Surf the urge. Pay attention to what it feels like in your body and to your breathing. Think of the urge like a wave you are going to surf, and breathe through it. Like a wave, it will crash and dissolve. Cravings sustain themselves when your brain and body believe you are going to give in. As soon as you make a commitment not to, it begins to change how the brain is processing the craving. This approach has been shown to help people conquer all kinds of cravings, from food to cigarettes."

(Read more of my interview with McGonigal and learn more about her cure for tech addiction.)


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