Susannah Taylor: Are you a screen addict?

There’s another pandemic no one seems to be talking about – our addiction to all things digital. One friend told me pre-Covid how she feared her son had failed his A-levels because of his ‘love’ of gaming. Another is worried that her son rarely gets off his multiple screens. And it’s not just teenagers – one buddy of mine can’t have a conversation with me without checking her phone 20 times like a nervous twitch.

woman on her phone
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Am I overly concerned or is this just ‘the new normal’ – an evolution of human behaviour in a high-tech world? A fellow journalist recently told me she doesn’t see a problem with it. ‘It’s just how we live, isn’t it?’ she shrugged. Yes, but then again, no. Kathryn Dombrowicz, an addictions specialist at mental wellbeing clinic The Soke, says: ‘There is a significant increase of anxiety and depression associated with increased digital use.’

There are different types of digital issues we can experience – compulsive social-media scrolling, constant checking of emails, gaming and gambling to name a few. Personally, I have a love/hate affair with Instagram – while I enjoy an Insta-scroll I dislike what a habit it’s become. And while Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma flagged up the dopamine inducing power of social media, no one I know who’s seen it has curbed their tech habits.

Digital addiction is not yet properly acknowledged by psychiatrists as a mental-health issue, but I predict it will be. According to Dombrowicz, the only element recognised by the ICD 11 (the official health classification system in the UK) is gaming. However, she says, ‘We’ve been watching the impact of all things digital in recent years and how it affects people’s lives. As with any addiction, it starts with good intentions, such as making you feel part of a group. But it can escalate and end up controlling you, which is when problems arise.’

Dombrowicz and I acknowledge the importance of social media and phones as a positive source of connection for all of us in lockdown – a lifeline, even – but will this past
year entrench our digital habits further? And how do you know if you have an addiction – and what do you do about it?

Patrick Maxwell, lead therapist for addictions at London’s Nightingale Hospital, says if you’re experiencing mood swings, guilt over being on a screen, boredom with routine tasks or feel euphoric when using tech, you may want to seek help. Other warning signs are if it’s impacting your daily life or relationships. He suggests asking yourself what it is you are seeking when you scroll/check/swipe – is it validation, escape, distraction or a coping mechanism? ‘By finding your internal motivation you can begin to change it,’ Maxwell says.

Dombrowicz also advises trying relaxation techniques to manage your emotions and therapy if needed if you are hiding behind a screen. It’s important, she says, to cultivate interest in other activities.

For families worried about their children, it’s essential to start a dialogue with them and to put boundaries in place – such as limits on screen time or when the wifi goes off. Also create interactions without screens, such as eating dinner together with no phones.

Ultimately, the digital world isn’t going away, so we need to find ways of managing it. As Maxwell says, technology isn’t necessarily good or bad – it’s how we use it that really matters.

If in doubt, check it out

woman getting neck checked
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According to Cancer Research UK, millions of people have missed out on cancer checks due to the Covid pandemic. If you have a mole that you are concerned about, The Mole Clinic has launched a screening service you can access from home. Remember, checking it out can save lives.

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Work It Tinted Moisturiser, £25, Skin in Motion

Plump It Tinted Protective Lip Balm SPF 30, £17, Skin in Motion

Lift It Waterproof Mascara, £20, Skin in Motion