Hooked on tablets: the tech ‘addicts’

Toddlers have tantrums when denied access to the iPad. Professionals never switch off from work. Couples forgo their smartphones only on holiday. Are we all obsessed?


Tracy Hughes recently introduced her 18-month-old son, James, to her iPad, so he could watch his favourite cartoons for 10 minutes while she had a shower or otherwise had her hands full. Sometimes she would bring the iPad to bed with her at night, watching it with her husband after James fell asleep. That became impossible once James began to demand more and more digital time. Hughes, who is 38, began to wonder if James might have a technology problem.

“One night I took the iPad off him and he had an absolute meltdown,” she says. “He wouldn’t be bothered with television so much, and I know all kids love cartoons, but with the iPad, first thing in the morning he looks for it.”

Hughes says she now has to hide the device under her pyjamas when she is going to bed, and she and her husband have become extremely conscious of how much time James is spending online.

“We were away at the weekend, and when I came back I couldn’t wait to see him. When he woke up, his eyes opened and he straightaway looked around the floor. I thought, He’s looking for the iPad. He had a big smile when he found it. We’re just going to have to hide it from him. When he sees it his legs start kicking. I don’t think he is addicted, but it wouldn’t be something I’d show him again in a hurry. It’s too late now at this stage.”

The experience has taught Hughes that she and her husband need to be far more conscious of the example they are setting their young son.

“If I leave the room upstairs without the iPhone, I have to go back for it. It is terrible,” Hughes says. “I only got it last year, and my husband had one for a year or two before that. Before I had mine, I’d often say to him, ‘I’m going to toss that thing in the bin,’ as he was constantly on it. Now, as soon the alarm goes off and I wake up, I automatically check emails and Facebook. You really do have to keep an eye on it, as bad habits can set in very easily.”

Voracious appetite
We are fast becoming a nation of voracious digital consumers. Each Irish home now has an average of four devices that can connect to the internet, according to Eircom. In the past six months alone, tablet ownership has doubled, and 250,000 of us check emails on holidays, while a quarter of us admit to checking emails first thing in the morning.

Smartphone usage has also increased, up from 39 per cent to 50 per cent – or 1.6 million people. The lines between our digital and physical lives are blurring, just as the distinction between work and home is also fading.

With such high levels of digital usage come problems, particularly around defining nondigital time within families, leaving work at work and, for some, recognising that we sometimes need to resist the digital urge.

Psychologists and addiction counsellors are still working out to what extent “digital addictions” are addictions at all, but there is a growing consensus that some traits evident in other addictions, such as to drugs and online gambling, also appear in people who admit to problematic relationships with their tablets or smartphones.

Dr Richard Graham, clinical director of the adolescent department of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London, and a leading expert on online obsessions, recently treated a four-year- old who was developing a problematic relationship with an iPad.

He is careful not to use the word addiction in relation to young children and digital technology. “If we were to say very young children are addicted, well then, they’re also addicted to chocolate or ice cream or certain toys. It becomes rather silly, and I don’t use the word myself.”

The difficulty for Graham and his colleagues has been in trying to distinguish between compulsion and something more worrying. “People can feel strongly compelled to respond to emails and update their status. Some are sticking to the definition where that activity makes you feel good and, if you don’t do it, you suffer some type of withdrawal response, which could be irritability, agitation and tension. Then it may be a problem.”

More research needs to be done before “internet-use disorder”, or something similar, could become a diagnosis. Some people argue that our psychology is failing to keep up with digital trends.

It is perhaps clearer when it comes to the balance, or lack of it, between work and leisure time.

“There is no ‘not at work’ any more,” Graham says. “We’re not offline or online. We inhabit two spaces simultaneously, and it becomes normal to always be at work in a way. Without smartphones, this wasn’t really possible. Even prebroadband, accessing emails at home was a nightmare. These devices are facilitating new ways of living where we are multitasking more. I don’t think any of us have got solutions in any major way. Some workplaces have no-email days, and all these things require further study.”

We’re twice as likely to talk on a mobile or check for messages if somebody we’re with is doing the same thing, according to US research. The same study found that not wanting to feel left out could explain why some couples encourage each other’s digital obsessions.

Always accessible
One couple for whom digital technology can sometimes be all-encompassing is Greg Canty and Deirdre Waldron, who run Fuzion PR in Cork. Canty admits that, aside from a week’s vacation each year, his smartphone is constantly by his side.

“The phone is a communication centre even when I don’t want it to be,” he says. “We are very busy at present, and our clients know we are accessible to them the whole time. The only time I truly turn off the smartphone is when we go on holidays.

“It is always plugged in beside me in bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I would fire up Twitter and start having a bit of banter or maybe write a blog. I wouldn’t call it an addiction. I just think life has moved on, and this is the reality of work for me now.”

Waldron says she is fully connected during the week but tries to keep weekends digital-free. She doesn’t want to change her husband’s digital life as long as he respects certain boundaries.

“If I hear his phone going in the middle of a film we’re watching, I get really annoyed,” she says. “On Saturday mornings, he’ll usually reach for the phone at about 8am, which for us is a lie-in. To be honest, I would think there was something wrong if he wasn’t reaching for the phone in the morning. It is part of who he is.”


Under five : Start setting boundaries now, such as limiting the time your child spends online. Keep some devices out of reach and set passwords. Ensure babysitters and grandparents know the rules.

Ages six -nine : Create a user account for your child on the family computer with appropriate settings. Decide on firm time limits for games and devices. Become familiar with age ratings on online TV and games. Talk about the kind of personal information children should not reveal about themselves online.

Ages 10-12 : Before getting your child their first mobile phone, ensure clear boundaries are in place. Be firm about services with minimum-age restrictions, such as Facebook. Remind your child that they shouldn’t do anything they wouldn’t do face to face.

Age 13 -plus: Don’t feel it is too late to reinforce boundaries or teach your child about technology. Talk to them about how they may be discussing issues such as health and body image online. If need be, discuss issues such as pornography and sexting. Before you turn off parental controls, ensure that your child knows what is expected in terms of acceptable online behaviour.

Advice by Annie Mullins. Reproduced courtesy of Vodafone


“We would see problematic misuse of online technology most in online gaming. People usually present with mood and anger issues, and then we discover a huge part of it is online dependency.

“Nowadays, people will take the iPad to the bathroom, and, whereas before you’d have one phone in the hall, now there is no sacred space. One concern would be that people might have hundreds of Facebook friends but many of them are weak ties and are not meaningful relationships.

“We don’t really know the cultural impact of this yet. For people in relationships, often there is no switching off at 5pm. The concept of being alone together is no longer enough for many, and we need outside stimulus as well. That can interfere with the strength and bond of relationships.

“Obviously, social media is not going away. It is becoming a body in itself and an area where a lot of problems can be acted out. A lot of clinicians will put their heads in the sand and say it is not happening, but we need to get to grips with it.”
Colman Noctor
Psychotherapist at St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin

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