Picture this; you’re attempting to have a serious conversation, but the person you’re having it with is fully engrossed in their phone or gaming console. The conversation doesn’t go anywhere. Does this sound familiar? Many people believe this preoccupation with technology is confined to younger generations, but it’s something that affects people of all ages.
With technology now being used for entertainment, work, shopping, socialisation, and much more, it’s becoming increasingly important for people to establish boundaries – and to know when to step away from screens and prioritise other things.
And even people who don’t have a problem doing this, will often know someone who does; which can be worrying and frustrating.
Below, we’ll take a look at why it can be difficult to put down our smart devices, and how technology can cause problems for individuals and families – yet at the same time be beneficial.
Why is it so tricky to step away from smart devices?
Notifications on our laptops, tablets, and smartphones can be annoying and distracting; not just for us, but for the people around us too.
Look at any phone and you’ll find that there are numerous sounds for ringtones and notifications. But, as notifications mount up, it’s not hard for that cheerful ‘ping’ sound you once found fun to start becoming a source of stress and anxiety.
In this case, it might seem natural to limit time on smart devices to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Yet, it’s not always that easy – as the need to check in on that ‘ping sound’ can become addictive.
Many of us can’t help but look at each and every notification and feel we have to respond instantly; either due to fear of missing out, letting someone down, or more notifications building up. This can make it difficult to complete a task without getting distracted, and to become stressed by demands that people are making on your time.
If this sounds familiar, then The Guardian has an excellent article about notifications and how to cope with them that you might find helpful.
Outside of work and family life, social media and gaming are also adding many hours onto people’s screen time. Fear of missing out is relevant again here – as lots of people use social media to feel connected to the world, and can feel isolated and detached without it. Some people also do a lot of their socialising via games consoles, and will agree to meet friends online to play together.
Online gaming and social media are also used by many as a form of escapism. Hours can fly by while a person is scrolling through their news feed, or trying to beat their high score on a trending video game.
On the surface, things like gaming and social media usage might seem like harmless hobbies or like something that’s just become a normal part of modern life – and oftentimes this is true. But in some cases, internet overuse can lead to addiction and cause multiple problems, for example; relationship issues, gambling, and even financial difficulties.
The word ‘addiction’ can often be used lightly, but the NHS defines it as “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.”
To find out more about technology addiction, it’s worth having a read of this article from the BBC.
A closer look at online gaming and social media addiction
Now that we’ve touched on why it can be so difficult to step away from smart devices and how in some cases this can lead to addiction – let’s take a closer look at three of the most common types of internet addiction: gaming, gambling, and social media.
Online gaming addiction
Online gaming is one particular area where addictions are becoming more common, and in many countries, treatment programs have been developed to help those with a dependency.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) now includes Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) on their International Classification of Diseases list. IGD is defined as “a pattern of gaming behaviour (digital-gaming or video-gaming) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
WHO also says, “For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.”
A 2021 Ofcom report mentioned the following in relation to gaming:
62% of adults and 92% of 16–24-year-olds played games on an electronic device during 2020.
Over half of gamers agreed that gaming helped them get through the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Gamers aged 8-15 years said they were more likely to get bullied during online gaming than on social media.
Smartphones were the most commonly used devices for gaming across all age groups.
There has been an increase in those watching YouTube (100 billion in 2020 doubled from 2018) and Twitch (17 billion 2020 up from 9 billion in 2019) for gaming content.
Ofcom also states that a third of gamers in the 16-64 year old bracket who were surveyed in 2021 said they had spent money on in-game or virtual items. This was actually higher than the amount spent on digital games or subscriptions and physical games – which takes us on to the link between online gaming and gambling.
The link between online gaming and gambling
Some studies have identified a link between video games and gambling addictions. Take for example loot boxes, which are a main feature of many online games. Recently, games companies have come under fire for using predatory practices to drive players to spend money while playing the game, and researchers have started to notice a link between loot boxes and problem gambling.
As a result, there have been calls for in-game rewards to be classed as betting products to protect children and teenagers. A quick search on the internet will bring up stories about children and young people spending vast sums of money on gaming – often without their parents being aware of what’s going on.
The BBC has two such stories. One (entitled ‘The kids emptied our bank account playing Fifa’) is about some parents who only discovered that their children had been buying player packs for their game when the parents went to make a purchase and their card was declined. The other story is about a student who spent his university savings on gaming: ‘Loot boxes: I blew my university savings gaming on Fifa’.
The pandemic has also had an impact on gambling and gaming, although more research is needed to determine the extent of this.
How to spot the signs of gaming addiction in yourself or someone you know
According to the NHS the following symptoms are potential signs of gaming addiction. This is relevant to both gamers and observers.
A person might:
Always be thinking about or wanting to play the game/games.
Appear short-tempered and twitchy when not playing.
Try to hide details about when and how much time they’re spending playing.
Appear tired, or have regular headaches due to too much screen time. They might also show signs of pain in their hands from use of the game controller.
Not pay attention to eating or their personal hygiene.
Stop all of their other interests, including seeing their friends. Instead, their focus is on gaming.
Be reluctant to go to school or work, so as not to miss out on time spent on gaming.
UK Rehab has an excellent article about gaming addiction if you want to find out more.
Social media addiction
Social media is another common form of internet addiction and it often goes hand in hand with smartphone addiction – as many popular social media platforms are typically accessed via smartphone apps.
According to the British Medical Journal, 77% of internet users in the UK have a social media profile and a study has estimated that 20% of adolescents may use social media for around five hours each day. This comes with concerns, as too much time scrolling through social media and apps can increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Another recent study found that people are devoting a third of their waking time to mobile apps. Most apps use push notifications to promote new information, including offers, which can also make it harder to switch off from them, even when you’re not using them.
How to spot the signs of social media addiction in you or someone you know
There are a few ways to tell if you or someone you know is spending too much time on social media. Time To Log Off lists seven signs to look out for.
A person who is addicted to social media might:
Check their social media as soon as they wake up.
Continually check their social media accounts throughout the day when they’re at work.
Become agitated when they can’t check their social media.
Constantly check on their social media posts to see how well they’re doing.
Spend a lot of time planning their next post and overthinking it. As the article on Time To Log Off says “This is not good for mental health. You need a break and you need time to be alone with your thoughts. Allowing social media to clog up your thoughts obstructs mental clarity and peace of mind.”
Constantly imagine their phone is making a noise when it isn’t.
Find themself ignoring your offline interests in favour of social media.
Cutting down on online gaming, social media, and smartphone usage
Even if you or someone you know isn’t addicted to social media and/or gaming, it’s still advisable to take a break from screen time every so often. The best way to do this is by…
Making a decision as to how long you will take a break from gaming and or social media engagement, and committing to it. Will it be a week, a month, or longer? Keep a diary during this time and note down how you feel. If you find yourself tempted to log on, ask yourself what the trigger point for this was: boredom? stress? Understanding this can help you to explore other ways to manage your time when you feel this way.
Deciding whether you’re going to stop using your games console or social media accounts, or smartphones entirely for that time. If not, then try to cut back your usage by 50%.
Deleting all social media apps from computers, phones, tablets, etc to remove the temptation of looking at them. Some people do this every few weeks to give themselves a break; while others might want to break ties with certain apps altogether.
Turning off notifications you might receive that will distract you, such as push notifications.
Putting your phone down and keeping it out of reach when getting on with other tasks. This is particularly important if you’re around a group of people as it can be seen as being bad mannered to concentrate on your phone rather than interacting with others in the group.
If you’re at home, keep your smartphone in another room to help you resist the temptation to constantly check it. It’s also important not to have your games console, laptop, phone, or tablet in the bedroom when you get into bed. That way you won’t be tempted to check your social media or play a game before going to sleep.
Plan to do something else instead each time you find yourself reaching for your game or social media fix. For example, you could do a jigsaw, read a book, or get stuck into some crochet. Or, why not take this opportunity away from your devices to incorporate some more exercise into your daily routine?
Make a note of how you react to not having the constant stimulation of social media or the need to play a game. Many people find this lack of stimulation difficult at first, but feel more relaxed and engaged with life in time.
Create a plan for how you’ll use your social media/game-free time. This could be a great opportunity to explore a new hobby that you’ve been wanting to try.
Instead of texting or using a messenger app to keep in contact with family and friends, why not pick up the phone and call them? Or even arrange a time to get together in person, if possible.
There are also apps that can block you from using social media apps for a period of time. Flipd is one that successfully hides social media apps and games so that you can stay focused and complete your tasks. Others include AppDetox for Android phones and Channel for Apple phones. If none of these appeals to you, here’s a selection of other blocking apps that might fit what you’re seeking a little better.
If you sign up for It’s Time To Log Off’s newsletter, you’ll also receive a cheat sheet that has more useful ideas about how to go through a digital detox.
We also have lots of tips on cutting down screen time in our article; How to cope with screen fatigue.
What to do if you think you or someone you know has an internet addiction and needs more help
In the majority of cases, the tips above will hopefully be enough to nip any issues with internet overuse in the bud. But if you’re worried that you or someone you know has a more serious problem and is addicted to social media, gaming, or another form of technology, then you may want to seek support from your GP.
GPs may be able to offer advice on topics such as how to approach someone you care about to encourage them to get help, or where to find support.
The NHS also has a centre for those over the age of 13 that treats online gaming disorders – and you can refer yourself or a family member, or ask a professional (such as your GP) to do this for you.
Alternatively, private mental health care providers like the Priory Group, UK Addiction Treatment Centres, or UK Rehab offer an initial free assessment or callback for people who are worried about an internet addiction. Even if you can’t afford to pay for treatment, it’s still worth contacting providers like these, as they may be able to offer some advice, or point you in the direction of someone else who can help.
The benefits of gaming and social media
Despite all the bad press about gaming and social media, it’s important for us to remember that there are some positives too. Many people formed supportive social media groups online during lockdown, as a way to connect with other like-minded people. Some have faded, others have continued, friendships have been formed – and as time has gone on, some have met in person.
Grandparents also started playing online games with their grandchildren, and parents over the age of 55 logged on to play with children who had left home. They saw it as a fun way to connect with one another during what was an anxious and uncertain time.
Social media is also a method of keeping in contact with family and friends who live some distance away – especially during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Learning is another way that social media can be helpful. For example, YouTube has plenty of videos to help you sharpen skills or even learn new ones. Or, if you want to improve your digital skills, Google Digital Garage is a good place to look. Whilst it isn’t technically social media, the courses can be accessed via your phone, so it can be seen as a positive use of phone time.
As we can see, there are both positive and negative reactions and behaviour towards gaming, social media, and smartphone usage. The negatives include addiction, money worries, and anti-social behaviour. The positives include keeping in contact with family and friends, and developing existing skills or learning new ones.
The negatives are usually based around how much time is spent online. If you find that technology starts to take over, it can be helpful to take a step back, and focus on other ways to manage your time offline. Always remember that you’re in control of your devices, not the other way around!
Do you have any views on gaming and social media? Have you found them beneficial or have they caused significant problems? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.