What is The Harm if I Use Screens Too Much? A Reality Check

Is My Compulsive Screen Use Really a Problem?

If I told you, … “Today you have to choose between going shopping dressed in only your underwear, or giving up your phone for a day”, would you have a hard time making a choice?

Except for the exhibitionists amongst us, most people would have difficulty getting along without their phone. Many of us feel antsy or anxious when we don’t have our phones within reach; … it is so common that there is a new word, “NoMoPhobia”, to describe the feeling.

Do you know the urgent feeling of wanting to check your notifications? It’s another sign:

The addictive properties designed into our devices are manipulating our behavior.

What are the apps you notice pulling at you?
Do you think maybe you use your digital devices too much?

How much is TOO much? When does a habit become a problem?

How to Tell When Your Internet Use is a Problem 

In this post I give you a heads up about ways a phone or internet habit is affecting some people’s lives. You can evaluate your own situation, and decide if you like what you are doing, or want to make a change.

What is An Addiction? Does my internet habit qualify?

Addiction is a habitual behavior that shows:

  1. (Physical) Tolerance. (a person needs more of “whatever” to get the pleasurable effect ).
  2. Withdrawal Symptoms. (a nasty physical or emotional reaction to doing without “it”).
  3. Dependence. (a feeling that the user needs “whatever” to be OK. Craving “it”.)
  4. Negative (physical, emotional or social) Consequences of the compulsive habit in RL, and
  5. Lack of Control. (the person is unable to stop using, even though they’ve tried, and want to do so.)

In most addictions, (like substance use and gambling), there are severe negative consequences like loss of a job, a relationship, one’s house, or one’s health…

Can Compulsive Internet Use be a True Addiction?

Well… Yes. Sometimes.

Immersive, Interactive Media is Made to be Habit Forming

Online gambling, immersive roleplay gaming, and online porn may have participants who meet all the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of addiction, … but I think it is relatively rare for people to be clinically addicted to the internet, because most adults, if aware, can exercise some control.

It is more common for people to exhibit Problematic Interactive Media Use (PIMU), where the habit might interfere with a person’s happiness, or put strain on relationships… but not cause huge losses.

An Example from my own Experience

I played Tribal Wars for a long while, and stopped only when my husband complained endlessly that I wasn’t present with him, even when I was in the room. He was right.

During the time that I played, fellow players in our tribe would report complaining wives, families that went to events without dad while he played the game, … stuff like that.

One guy, I’ll call him Jeff, logged in and said, “When I came home from work today my girlfriend was gone… all her stuff is cleared out.” Then he coordinated the next joint attack that would advance the game.

If Jeff ever said that he “needed” to play everyday, … or that he experienced distress or anxiety when he could not play the game; he would meet the criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5. (The classification is new and has sparked intense discussion among researchers.)

If Jeff can’t walk away from it, his game is definitely a problem for him. Why?

  • The game cost him real world loss, (consequences);
  • He feels a need to play, (dependency);
  • He feels anxiety and distress when he can’t play, (withdrawal);
  • He can’t walk away. (Loss of Control).

Most people can walk away like I did.

Some are More at Risk of “Problematic Internet Use” than Others

I am Vulnerable to Have an Internet Use Problem.

Why? It is all about vulnerability…

I am a person who lives with cerebral palsy.
I experience chronic pain and some physical limitations.

Using Media to Escape a Problem or Meet Emotional Needs = A Path to Trouble

About the same time as I played Trial Wars, I considered getting involved with the 3D social simulation game called Second Life. The idea of creating an alternative reality was appealing because I have pain and challenges in my real life existence.

I would like to be able to move easily and be slim, adventurous, and fit.
But it’s not happening in this life… not for me.
I believe that I might have lost myself to the game, if I had been less mindful of my vulnerabilities, or more curious about exploring the platform.

Second Life has been responsible for:

  • actual marriages,
  • real world divorces,
  • real world fortunes won and lost, and
  • a blurring of the line between virtual and actual reality.

Immersive Interactive Media Seems to be the Most Addictive form of internet use… 

Second Life is just one example of a MMORPG, (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). There are a massive number of them.

A great deal of very sophisticated behavioral neuroscience goes into their development. AKA: Persuasive design, … to make a compelling user experience. By definition = highly addictive.

Some addiction therapists want to keep MMORPG away from young people, not because of graphic content, but because players have great difficulty governing themselves. It is way too easy to play obsessively.

The Peril and Promise of Virtual Reality Technology

The development of augmented reality has raised the stakes even more. Soon everybody will need to be very wise:

  • to assess their own vulnerabilities and pain points, and
  • be clear about their life goals and values,

before they engage in highly stimulating, delightful, immersive virtual experiences.

Risk Factors: Social and Emotional Vulnerability

When a person has psychological pain, digital entertainment with its dopamine thrill feels really great. Such a person may have a stronger response to the stimulus. The relief they feel may also be greater. This is the dopamine reward loop that drives addiction.

Another Example: How Vulnerable Might YOU Be?

People whose social skills are underdeveloped feel loneliness, or feelings of awkwardness. They get fewer strokes from other people. Do you think such a person might prefer a virtual reality with no conflict or challenge?

Would you like a perfectly compliant sex partner who matches your favorite fantasy? An ideal whose only desire is to please you … and they’ll never disagree or talk back?

I predict that some people will retreat from real life into an easier virtual reality.

If they do, how do you think that person will ever gain the interpersonal skills they need to fully engage real life?

Would you come out of VR to risk rejection with a flesh and blood partner?

VR or Augmented Reality as a Powerful Tool for Good

Virtual Reality has immense potential for educational and therapeutic uses too, like teaching interpersonal skills for instance. The US military is using Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy to treat soldiers with PTSD. Some are exploring VR’s benefits for the elderly in nursing homes, including those with dementia.

Media Overuse is one kind of “Maladaptive Coping Style”

Today, people are losing themselves on their phone or device because dopamine feels so good and is an effortless buzz. Easy is seductive… and people chase more of the good feeling without thinking.

If you use the internet for mindless escape from loneliness or pain, or distraction from something uncomfortable, even boredom, you may have a “Maladaptive coping style”, and greater risk of “problematic internet use”.

Please excuse the jargon. I think I need to use it so google doesn’t think I am making this up.

Simple Remedy

In April 2019, The World Health Organization issued a directive for policy makers about the results of meta analysis of world wide research studies. Their work echoes the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and others.

There appears to be no negative consequences of using interactive media for less than three hours a day. People need to ensure they make time for sleep, physical activity and face to face conversation every day.

And if you:

  • Bring your habit under conscious awareness,
  • Use your devices mindfully … on purpose,
  • Choose positive (adaptive) coping strategies to deal with personal difficulties, and
  • Favor activities aligned with your values, including nurturing face to face contact,

you can curb your own vulnerability for PIMU.

Other Hazards of Digital Media Overuse: Physical Problems

Musculo-skeletal stiffness and pain

To avoid strain on muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments, especially of the neck and shoulders, pay attention to good ergonomic positioning, and your posture when using digital devices. Harvard Medical School Healthbeat summed it up well.

Repetitive strain injuries of the hand and wrist are common too. Watch your ergonomics.

Eye Trouble from Digital Screens:

Digital screens cause several issues related to the eye and vision.

The Mechanics of Vision

First are symptoms you might think of as mechanical. Eyes on a screen do not blink as often as normal; this causes dry eye and irritation. Screen viewing for sustained periods also causes changes in the eye that may make some people nearsighted.

Eye specialists recommend what they call the 20-20-20 rule. Every twenty minutes on a screen, stop and look at something twenty feet or more away… for at least 20 seconds. They want you to consciously remind yourself to blink periodically too.

Second issue: Blue Light and Digital Eye Strain

Blue light that emanates from screens is a high energy short wavelength glare that penetrates deep into the eye.
This is believed to be the source of digital eye strain, a condition the Mayo Clinic says is marked by:

  • Sore, tired, burning or itching eyes,
  • Watery or dry eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Headache
  • Sore neck, shoulders or back
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling that you cannot keep your eyes open

A blue light filter on your device can help, but the better plan would be for people to practice self care and limit screen use for long periods of time.

Do you have any of the above symptoms?

Still Other Harms from Digital Media Overuse:

Sleep Disturbance

Blue Light and the Brain:

Because blue light is similar to morning sunlight, using screens within 1 to 2 hours of bedtime fools your brain into wakefulness. Blue light also suppresses melatonin in your brain. Melatonin helps you into a deep, restorative sleep state.

How close to 8 hours of sleep do you get a night?

Altered Ability to Focus: Hazards resulting from Being Distracted 

Divided Attention is Hazardous to Your Health

The variations on this theme are endless.

  • Driving while using a device is costing lives everyday.
  • People walk into open manholes, or lamp posts because they are using their phone.
  • Accidents are happening to children when their parent or caregiver is distracted on a smartphone.

The harms of screen overuse we have covered so far are effects that can be measured. How many boxes can you tick? Is your device giving your trouble?

Oh… wait. There is even more to think about.

Social and Emotional Costs of Screen Overload:

There are reports that depression occurs more often in people who consume the internet more than 3-5 ours a day.

Some suggest that when the brain has elevated levels of dopamine on a consistent basis, it may produce less dopamine than normal to try and regulate itself.  Less dopamine would push a person to chase a dopamine buzz.

Watch yourself for feelings of low mood and seek other ways to make yourself feel better because using your screen to feel better could be making the problem worse.

Check the Quality of Your Connections… 

Have you wanted the attention of a loved one but they were hooked by something on their phone?

I fear that unintended effects of heavy internet use will eventually emerge when people look at the quality of their interpersonal relationships.

Researchers are noting:

  • Social networks are broader but more superficial.
  • Conversations are more distracted and less satisfying when a smartphone is in sight.
  • People skills are eroding.
  • Fewer people have learned the social skill of empathy.

I think the long term impact on the way society works could be huge. Personally, I think that it is most important to manage the ways media use impacts the family unit. Family is the place where small scale personal action can have a large scale impact on the society at large.

The Most Important Assessment of All: The Quality of YOUR Relationships

When you think about the people who are most important in your life, do any of your relationships need more attention?




About the Author

Peggy McLauchlan is a counsellor, ACT therapist, and personal development coach in Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in positive psychology practices applied to problems with modern digital technology, like smartphone addiction and problematic internet use.


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