Apple urged to take action on smartphone addiction some call 'digital heroin'

  • Jana Partners and the CalSTRS, two major Apple investors, insist the tech giant address the growing concern that the iPhone is addictive and that overuse could cause "long-term consequences."
  • The investors' request comes on the heels of the World Health Organization's announcement that video game addiction will now be classified as an official mental health condition.
  • Medical experts say tech addiction is steadily going to get worse as technology gets faster and smarter, fueling the need for this "digital heroin."
Kids using smartphone
Getty Images

On Saturday two major Apple shareholders sent a request to Apple, insisting the tech giant take action to address the growing concern that the iPhone is addictive and that overuse could cause "long-term consequences."

And medical experts say it's steadily going to get worse as technology gets faster and smarter, fueling the need for this "digital heroin."

Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, also known as CalSTRS, control about $2 billion of Apple shares, reported the Wall Street Journal. In an unprecedented move, the investors urged Apple to develop new, easier-to-use tools to help parents limit phone use and to study the effect of overuse on mental health.

These proactive moves, the investors believe, not only demonstrate social responsibility but exhibit a tactical business move: Healthy business practices will keep consumers loyal.

"Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do," the shareholders wrote in their letter to Apple. "There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility."

Tech addiction extends far beyond the iPhone

Yet many mental health experts argue that tech addiction extends far beyond just the iPhone: gaming, sexting and porn addiction, online infidelity, online gambling, social media addiction, information overload and screen addiction are destroying millions of lives as well — and costing corporate America billions. According to a recent study by Vault.com, surfing costs $54 billion annually in lost productivity.

The Apple letter comes on the heels of the World Health Organization's announcement last month that video game addiction will now be classified as an official mental health condition in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, coming in 2018. Gaming disorder, according to the WHO, is "characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior," including not feeling like you have control over how much you play, putting gaming over other life priorities and continuing to play games despite negative consequences.

"The behavior pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning," the entry says.

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Bill Hinton | Getty Images

US lags far behind in tech addiction intervention

Yet while it may appear that the United States is starting to provide some much-needed intervention for the growing issue of tech addiction, their efforts pale in comparison to other countries. Globally, social media addiction has been receiving widespread attention.

Many other countries — including Australia, China, Japan, India, Italy, Japan, Korea and Taiwan— already officially recognize tech addiction as a disorder, some even going so far as to declare the issue a public health crisis, leading governments and health-care providers to develop a series of major initiatives, such as in-patient treatment centers, to curb the problem.

The South Korean government sponsors about 200 counseling centers and hospitals with programs on internet addiction and has trained more than 1,000 counselors. In 2013 the Ministry of Education in Japan introduced internet "fasting camps" for young addicts to receive counseling in a tech-free environment. China has more than 300 treatment centers (China officials there estimate 10 million teenagers are addicted).

As there is no standard criteria for diagnosis, especially between countries, it is impossible to put a number on the actual number of people who suffer from digital overuse, but surveys in the United States and Europe have indicated that it ranges between 1.5 and 8.2 percent of the population.

And it's costing corporate America billions. According to a recent study by Vault.com, surfing costs $54 billion annually in lost productivity.

Yet not everyone is buying into it.

"Tech addiction is a hot topic and one that people talk about a lot, but we need to clearly define and differentiate what constitutes a mental disorder that is causing major adverse consequences and distinguish it from just a bad habit that people just wish they weren't doing," says psychiatrist Dr. Nancy Petry of the UConn Health Center, who is also a consultant and advisor for the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Nancy Petry was awarded the first-ever grant from the National Institutes of Health to study cognitive behavioral treatments for online gaming addiction.
Source: University of Connecticut School of Medicine
Dr. Nancy Petry was awarded the first-ever grant from the National Institutes of Health to study cognitive behavioral treatments for online gaming addiction.

Disorder or not, scientists have determined that excessive internet use adversely affects the brain's frontal lobe and brainstem functions, resulting in delayed cognitive development — the ability to focus, speak, reason and comprehend social cues. Ultimately, internet addiction can cause anxiety and depression, ADHD, stress, obesity and the inability to interact in the real world, leading to personal, family, academic, financial and occupational problems.

Like alcohol and drugs, the internet provides a high, and addicts become dependent on it for pleasure, claims Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Connecticut, one of the first tech addiction centers to open in the United States.

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An assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Dr. Greenfield is considered a pioneer in treating digital media overuse. His book, Virtual Addiction, rang an early warning bell when it came out in 1999, when the internet was still being accessed only through dial-up.

"There was no high-speed internet, no Wi-Fi, no laptops or tablets, no smartphones, and it was already an issue," he said. "But now, because we have greater ease of access and it's easier to pick and click and have that automatic intoxication of response, it's more addictive."

"The numbers of referral and patients that we get calls from has probably gone up 10-fold in the last 20 years. We have had a 1,000 percent increase in the numbers of cases." -Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction

Dr. Greenfield claims that this has led to an explosion of internet and tech abuse and addiction. "The numbers of referral and patients that we get calls from has probably gone up 10-fold in the last 20 years. We have had a 1,000 percent increase in the numbers of cases, and we treat hundreds of cases a year at this point."

To meet the demand, hundreds of outpatient treatment centers are popping up all over the country, offering weekly intensives, digital-detox retreats and wilderness therapy.

Dr. Greenfield's center will soon be adding a 30- to 60-day residential recovery program — the fourth in the United States to offer residential treatment. The others are reSTART, in Seattle; the Internet Addiction Treatment and Recovery Program at the Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania; and the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery in Peoria, Illinois.

The cost of these programs: anywhere from $3,000 to $45,000, depending on length of stay and whether the recovery program involves residential or outpatient treatment.

5 tips to keep your child from becoming addicted to tech

1. Let your actions speak louder than your words. Lead by example and make face-to-face interaction more important than being on your smartphone.

2. Explain how biomechanics affect your brain and your body. Have an open and honest conversation with your kids about how these devices can affect them physically and mentally may put the brakes on.

3. Set limits on screen time. This is the most obvious step but perhaps the most difficult to enforce, says Bark. "You can't just give your child a device and think they will turn it off when it's reasonable. We have to be parents. Take away the chargers. Use screen-time management apps." Bark recommends Circle, Luma or Unglue.

4. Have screen-free zones in your house. Don't let your kids take their devices into their bedroom. Limit it to common areas.

5. Indulge in the real world. As a family, embrace art and music and cooking. Get outside, put your feet in the grass and experience the world."

Source: Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer at Bark, an internet watchdog keeping kids safe online

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