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10.31.07

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Addicted to Texting

Silicon Valley's #1 drug export is technology. Are you hooked?

by Erin Sherbert

It starts out innocuously. You buy the newest toy that makes communication cool and convenient. Maybe you used to make fun of your friends' BlackBerrys or their need to stay constantly connected through emails, text messages and phone calls. So it certainly won't happen to you, right?Next thing you know, you're sucked in. You're interrupting dinner conversations to respond to a text, or tapping away at the Treo while driving, or logging on to scan movie times while taking a shower. Maybe you're even listening for that buzz or beep during sex.

No question about it, we've become gluttons for the gadgets that make us available 24/7—the technology that has bolstered our work ethic and productivity and given us enough flexibility to close an important business deal while standing in line at Disney World.Yet the portability and accessibility of this technology has also enabled what is becoming slowly recognized as a genuine addiction. "Crackberry" isn't just a joke anymore. "It is like taking a drug," says Robert LaRose, a professor at Michigan State University who studies Internet and WiFi addiction. "There are people who get so wrapped up, and something major goes wrong with their life like they lose their job."The reason people get hooked is pretty basic: it feels good.

We crave social interaction; it makes us happy. And instant communication gives us a thrill—these gadgets have the ability to make us feel needed and important. There's also an underlying sense that if you don't answer emails or text messages immediately, you might suffer social or professional repercussions.

But the pathological need to be connected might be more than psychological.

New research shows that this computer overuse could also be physiological. Just as with exercise or food consumption, sending and receiving instant messages is a rush to the brain.

It's possible that engaging in compulsive emailing and computer use increases the levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure part of the brain, says Carrie Ellis-Kalton, assistant psychology professor at Maryville University in St. Louis.

And if a person is used to getting that extra kick of pleasure throughout the day, and then it suddenly stops, he or she is likely to experience withdrawal, a classic symptom of addiction, Ellis-Kalton says. In other words, if you get anxious because you can't check your BlackBerry while in the Bahamas, then you might have a problem.

The mental health community has yet to officially classify computer overuse, including email and text messaging, as a mental health disorder. But psychologists believe that will soon change.

Ellis-Kalton says she's certain computer overuse will be included in the updated Diagnostics and Statistics Manual, the official bible of mental disorders as recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

If that does happen, then insurance companies may start footing the bill for crackberry addicts. "I think it will be a prominent part of mental health in the years to come," says Ellis-Kalton.

Experts Aren't Immune
But just how bad is our obsession with these gadgets?

When I sent out a query across the country looking for professionals to speak about technology addictions and their effects, I was struck by the numerous replies, many of which naturally arrived via BlackBerry.

But the thing is, they didn't want to talk about how to help the general population so much as they wanted to talk about their own BlackBerry afflictions. Here are some of the replies:

"I have two, I even took them into the ER most recently and had a panic attack in the MRI tunnel because I knew I was missing messages."
"It's constantly going off, and when it isn't, it is in my hands; I sleep with it in my hand."

"My name is Renee and I'm a recovering BlackBerry addict."

"I know it drives my wife crazy—I just can not stop."

Many people have trouble setting BlackBerry boundaries. They let the technology dominate their day, neglecting people and other activities.

"It can happen gradually and people don't always realize that it has gotten out of hand," said Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at Rutgers University who studies behavioral addictions. "It's been damaging; we should be concerned about it."

But some experts believe that people can generally get a grip on their overuse before it spirals out of control, especially if they feel guilty about how many hours a day they spend on the phone checking email, browsing the Internet, or sending text messages.

Not Campbell resident Meike Glover. The 26-year-old texter admits he's an addict, and he's not sorry about it. In fact, 90 percent of the time, he uses text messaging to communicate with friends and family. If it's really dire, he'll pick up the phone to call—reluctantly.

He sends and receives an average of 60 messages every day with his Verizon Razor phone. He texts while he is hanging with friends at a bar, when he is at work and even while riding his bike across town, Glover said.

"For me its easier, I don't like calling people," says Glover. "I'm not ashamed by it at all."

It's Me or Technology
The all-consuming phone might make you superhuman at work, but it can also turn you into a flaky friend, a jealous lover or a distant parent.

It gives spouses the power to cheat—and get caught. It makes it easier for friends to break plans at the last minute, and it can be a social crutch, allowing people to stand in the corner at a party and text with people they know instead of meeting new people.There's no way to know just how many relationships have been called off over BlackBerry and other technology abuse. But April Masini, a Los Angeles-based relationship expert, says loved ones often feel they have to compete with the phone. 

"I do believe relationships are breaking up more quickly than ever because the technology makes problems in the relationship more apparent," says Masini. "People feel cheated on—by a BlackBerry."It also hinders interpersonal communication. People will avoid confrontation or arguments by sending an evasive email or a brisk text message, Masini says.The effects of this technology dependence are hard to spot. Unlike a substance abuser who blows through paychecks or a gambling addict who puts the family in debt, society rewards people who are always reaching for their BlackBerry.There are social and work pressures that harden our threshold for digital interruptions, says Matt Richtel, a San Francisco-based novelist and New York Times technology reporter.

Rarely, people will ask their date or a friend to put away the phone or ignore incoming messages."It's not only tolerant, but it's encouraging," Richtel says. "This has become synonymous with productivity—our bosses would like us to be on email, phone and instant message around the clock. It puts enormous pressure to decide 'Will I unhook and be intimate with people or will I participate in this very fast-paced world that requires my attention at all times?'"

It's clear that Jim Babcock has a love-hate relationship with his BlackBerry—the 62-year-old CPA carries it in his hand with hesitation, like a favorite pair of comfortable socks that are just too dirty to wear."I have the option of turning it off, but invariably you don't," says Babcock with resignation.

He resisted the cell phone culture for as long as he could, he says. After much pressure from his business associates, Babcock finally caved and bought his first BlackBerry last year.Admittedly, it has helped push along his business interactions, but it's also annoyed his wife, who often snaps at him to turn it off."So I get up in the middle of the night and turn it on," Babcock says.

Driving Under the Influence
Forget how annoying it is. What about the physical danger it creates in a situation such as driving? Cell phone distractions are already yesterday's news; now an alarming number of drivers on the road admit to texting behind the wheel.A June survey conducted by Zogby International, a public opinion research group, showed that nearly 66 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 say they are sending text messages while driving. In September, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a law banning teenagers from using cell phones while behind the wheel. It goes into effect July 1, 2008—along with a ban on all use of hand-held cell phones while driving. "It's a fairly new phenomenon," said Todd Thibodeau, an officer with the CHP in San Jose. "A lot of teenagers are apt to do that more often than others."

There are other physical consequences of our technology addiction, too. Tapping away at the Treo can also affect your health; do it long enough and it will start to hurt. Doctors say that many BlackBerry users are starting to complain about aching, sore thumbs.No wonder. The small keyboards not only put the thumb in an unnatural, awkward position, but the repetitive motion can cause wear and tear down to the bone."If you do it throughout the day it can strain your thumb similar with carpal tunnel syndrome," says Stacey Doyon, president of the American Society of Hand Therapists. "Take breaks every hour or every half hour."

The ultimate cure for this syndrome is to stop using the tool, said Dr. Sean Bidic, a Texas-based plastic surgeon, who has treated patients for BlackBerry thumb.

"They don't know what's causing it," Bidic said. "They say 'my thumb hurts,' then you see in the middle of the appointment they are banging away at the BlackBerry or the Treo."

How to Unplug
When your partner feels neglected, your friends are annoyed and your thumb hurts, it may be time to draw some boundaries.

Experts have some advice for those die-hard "crackberry" addicts:
Remember that you don't always have to answer messages immediately. If someone sends you a text message or email, try to wait until later or even the next day to respond.

Be more aware of how your BlackBerry behavior is affecting others around you. Prioritize your social time and interactions; consider what's more important—your text conversation or your conversation with the person sitting across from you.

If you have to send a text message, keep it short and simple; don't check your messages compulsively and rely on it as a primary medium for relationships.

San Jose dance teacher Jazon Escultura will always position his T-Mobile PDA so that it's visible. That way he can see when he is getting a message.

But for the most part, he tries not to let his digital relationships interrupt his personal conversations. "I look at them, but I won't necessarily respond," says Escultura. "I won't have separate conversations."

It's also becoming more important for workers to draw better boundaries with their employers, to help define work and life. Being plugged in at all times will lead to burnout among workers, experts say.

In a recent survey conducted by Sunnyvale-based Yahoo! HotJobs, 81 percent stay in touch with work through mobile phones and roughly 67 percent said they connect to work while on vacation using their wireless devices. About 50 percent said they feel it takes away from their time spent with family, according to the April 2007 survey.

"People have to be able to say no in terms of drawing a line on where work ends and where personal life begins," said Jon Fitch, career expert for HotJobs. "They have to say to their manager, 'This is when I am available this is when I'm not going to be available.'"

It never really occurred to Santa Clara resident Alex Pasos, 32, that he might be hooked on his BlackBerry. But after thinking about it, Pasos, a radio broadcaster, admitted that his BlackBerry doesn't leave his side.

Pasos uses his phone to check email or send a text message at least every 25 minutes. He doesn't feel guilty about his BlackBerry behavior—interrupting his conversations and social activities, including spending time with his wife.

"I just need it," Pasos says as he clutches his BlackBerry while walking through downtown San Jose.

"I'm always expecting something; I want to know what's up."


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