Tech addicts

The shift to mobile and Web-based technology has increased addictive behavior, say a range of experts.

Spending every moment with technology can change your life - and not for the better

In February, John Blanchard took to his blog and declared, "My name is John and I am a technology addict."

The 27-year-old California musician was logging so many hours on Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and video-sharing site Vimeo that he was neglecting family and friends.

"I love being able to connect with people around the world from so many different places," he wrote. "My problem is I can go overboard with new technology I find and let it take over my life."

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It's a quandary that's snaring more people as technology pervades society. In 2002, 63 per cent of Americans said it would be "very hard" to give up their landline telephones and 47 per cent said giving up their televisions would be tough. By 2007, they had switched their allegiance to cell phones and the internet, according to a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The shift to mobile and Web-based technology has increased addictive behavior, say experts.

Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, has studied technology addiction for 14 years. Her early studies focused on Internet gambling, chat rooms and pornography. These days, she has plenty of clients obsessed with Facebook and immersive, multi-user Web games like "World of Warcraft."

"In the 1990s, one thing or game would be addictive," she says. "Now it's multiple things; people go from one to the next and never leave the internet."

Technology applications can qualify as addictive if they consume users' time to the point of damaging their relationships, says Young. "The problem is when technology replaces other forms of contact," she explains. "If a young person isn't on the baseball team or in the school band because he has isolated himself in this way, that's a concern."

Most (96 per cent) compulsive internet users struggle with time management problems, according to Young's research. Other common problems are issues involving relationships (85 per cent), sex (75 per cent), work (71 per cent), finances (42 per cent), physical well-being (29 per cent) and academic performance (15 per cent). Psychologists who treat internet addiction typically categorize it as an impulse control disorder.

The list of potential culprits is growing. "World of Warcraft" is the game that crops up most frequently in Young's sessions. ("EverQuest," a 3D fantasy-themed multiplayer game first released in 1999 was the old favorite.)

Online poker continues to lure users, something Young attributes partly to the rise of celebrity poker games. EBay, with its millions of items and anxiety-inducing timed auctions, has produced its fair share of addicts, too. Young had a client who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on a military memorabilia collection that eventually took over his apartment.

Even Solitaire and Freecell, those favorites of bored office workers worldwide, can be addictive. "It's an easy distraction," says Young. "The problem is, it's so solitary; we don't know how many people are impacted by that behavior." Casual games like Tetris and Peggle similarly lull users into "just a few more minutes" stupors.

Virtual worlds like Second Life inspire other fixations. "A lot of Second Life's appeal is to older people who are playing out fantasies," says Young. That can lead to online affairs and overspending on virtual goods — topics Young plans to tackle in an upcoming book.

Data point to similar conclusions. PokerStars, which bills itself as the world's largest online poker room, attracted longer and more frequent user visits than any other Internet application in August, according to Nielsen Online. About 1.4 million people visited the site that month. That's a fraction of the mob that dropped by Apple's iTunes (36 million) or Windows Live Messenger (25 million). What makes PokerStars exceptional is its "stickiness" — users logged close to 12 hours that month on the site, compared to an hour or so at iTunes and Live Messenger.

Reinforcing the trend: The third stickiest Internet application for U.S. users is Full Tilt Poker, which has dubbed itself the "fastest-growing online poker room." The second is "Pirates of the Caribbean Online," a multiplayer Web game based on Disney's hit films.

Poker's allure stems, of course, from the tantalizing prospect of winning. "People think, I'm getting something out of this," even when no money actually changes hands, says Young. That's the hook for most video games, too. Microsoft's launch of "achievement points" several years ago prodded Xbox users to up their time on games like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Halo." More points translate into higher "gamerscores" and bragging rights in the gaming community.

The next frontier for technology addiction is mobile, says John Horrigan, Pew's associate director of research. Mobile addicts primarily talk and text, of course, but music and news updates are increasingly compelling. Song Identity, which uses software to ID songs, and sports news app ESPN MVP are two of the most-downloaded mobile applications besides instant messaging and navigation programs, according to data from Nielsen Mobile.

While Young supports the classification of Internet addiction as a specific disorder in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (due in 2013), others prefer the terms "dependence" and "heavy reliance" upon technology. "People with addictive predilections may simply glom onto tech," says Pew's Horrigan. "The jury's still out regarding cause and effect."

Blanchard, the self-confessed technology addict, crafted his own solution. He has deleted work e-mail and Twitter alerts from his iPhone and ceased scanning blog posts on Google Reader while at home or out with friends. But he hasn't let go altogether. When contacted him for comment, he Twittered out a message: "Just got an e-mail from wanting to mention one of my blog posts. Pretty cool!"