Red Eye - Stop Texting!

You feel lost without your smartphone. You use your tablet for everything. You need your laptop.

Even on vacation and away from the office, you can't let your gadgets out of your grip.

Is it a habit or addiction?

That depends on a variety of factors, according to experts. But the need to stay connected can affect your health, your success at work and your love life. Even though Internet addiction is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the psychiatrist's bible, it is a very real problem, experts say.

More than a third of college students need to have their digital devices at their fingertips almost constantly. In fact, 38 percent said they could not go more than 10 minutes without checking in with a tech device, according to survey results of more than 500 students released this year by CourseSmart, which provides eTextbooks and digital course materials.

And even as far back as five years ago, signs of the gadget effect were presenting themselves. A Stanford University study in 2006 found more than one out of eight Americans reported it was hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time—one sign of problematic use.

"I am not surprised as most people check their devices with great frequency—it does not mean they are all addicted, just dependent upon the technology," said Kimberly Young, founder and director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery.

"The real issue is to clinically look at how the disorder impacts a person's life—is this something that a person can't break away from, destroys marriages, etc. That is, how intense is the behavior?"

Internet addiction, defined as a compulsive behavior that interferes with normal living, has negative consequences ranging from job loss to anti-social isolation, experts said. An intense gadget connection falls under that umbrella.

Some people may not realize they are becoming addicted, said Hilarie Cash, executive director of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program. There may not be a strong driver, such as loneliness or anxiety, to the addiction, she said. For example, they can be drawn into the addiction because they are curious about who sent them a tweet or email and what it says, she said. Satisfying their curiosity can be rewarding.

Signs that the behavior has crossed the line into addiction include feeling preoccupied with the Internet and getting a sort of high from computer and online activities. Other symptoms are craving more time on the digital device and feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious or depressed from the behavior.

Two years ago, Cash founded an in-patient Internet recovery center in Washington. "We do have to think in harm reduction and moderation rather than abstinence because it's not realistic in this day and age for people to be completely abstinent from digital media," she said. One step could be trading a smartphone for a cellphone without texting and Internet capabilities.

So how can the average person dial back the digital connection?

Cash advises powering off your personal tech gadgets after using them for a total of two hours a day. Turn off notifications and disable sounds so you won't be alerted when a text or an email arrives at your inbox. Lastly, get on a schedule. Set a specific time aside to check for messages.

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

Tech timeout

Are you a prisoner to your tech gadgets? It could be harming your health, career and love life. Experts weighed in on how to wean yourself from the devices and digitally detox.

Mind

Power up your laptop to watch shows on Hulu before going to bed? Sleep with your cellphone next to you because it's also your alarm clock? Such technology can keep you from getting a good night's sleep.

Close to half of Millennials (ages 19 to 29) surf the Internet every night or almost every night within the hour before sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation's 2011 Sleep in America poll. About one in five adults under age 30 said they are awakened by a phone call, text or email at least a few nights a week, the poll showed.

"Our recommendation is always there are ways to use these devices at a different time. You can DVR your TV shows and watch them earlier in the day. Your computer and cellphone will store your messages. You can get back to people," said James Wyatt, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center atRush University Medical Center.

Tech tip: Remove as many of these devices from the bedroom as you can, Wyatt said. They can interfere with sleep directly (for example, when an audible alert wakes you) and indirectly (their mere presence sends cues to the brain that you should be awake, pushing back bedtimes).

Body

Using your gadgets can take a toll on your body. Fingers punch the keyboard or tap the screen. Eyes get fixed on the small font.

One major problem is computer vision syndrome, said Louise Sclafani, associate professor in the section of ophthalmology at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Reading a text on the phone, for example, requires using an eye muscle to change your focus. It's good to work that eye muscle, but using it all the time means it's constantly contracted, she said. Some believe that can make it hard to relax and can temporarily blur distance vision.

Eyes don't blink as much when reading on a computer or phone, and that can cause dry eye syndrome, Sclafani said. Symptoms include a scratchy, gritty feeling and blurred vision.

Another problem is repetitive strain disorder, which is caused by overusing muscles, tendons and ligaments, said Richard Ezgur, owner of Progressive Chiropractic Wellness Center in Lakeview. It results in strain and inflammation.

For example, often punching the small buttons on a smartphone can strain the hand, wrist or forearm. Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by traumatic injury or by repetitive strain. Symptoms may include mild to severe pain, numbness, tingling, weakness or swelling, he said.

Another less common condition which can be cause by repetitive strain is called trigger finger when fingers lock up and become difficult and painful to bend, he said.

Tech tip: Every half hour, look away from the device and take a two- to three-minute break to gaze into the distance, Sclafani said. Avoid squinting, which causes wrinkles. Take micro breaks of 20 to 30 seconds every 20 to 30 minutes to move the hands around, Ezgur said. Clench and release fists to work the muscles. Also spend less time on the device or use it with proper body posture and support.

Safety

When drivers are looking at their phones, that means their eyes aren't on the road. And that inattention to driving can be deadly.

But many can't resist the urge to pick up their phone and talk, dial or text – while driving.

It's illegal to text while driving in Illinois since Jan. 1, 2010. Since 2005, drivers on cellphones in Chicago faced a ticket for not using a hands-free device.

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study in 2009 found texting drivers are 23 times more likely to get into a crash than drivers who were not distracted. Texting drivers had their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds, which was equal to the time it would take to drive down a football field at 55 mph.

Tech tip: Put down the phone while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said using a hands-free device does not mean it is risk-free. Whether it is hands-free or hand-held, a cellphone is a major distraction and affects a driver's performance, the NHTSA said citing available research. The driver can still miss key visual and audio cues to avoid a crash.

Work

The majority of workplace disruptions come from digital distractions, according to a survey done in March by social email provider harmon.ie.

Such interruptions can affect productivity. The survey showed 53 percent of employees waste at least one hour a day because of all types of distractions. That hour comes out to $10,375 in wasted productivity per person, per year, assuming an average salary of $30 an hour, the survey said.

Even at meetings, the survey showed, workers will tune out to answer an email, tweet or update their status on a social network.

Being preoccupied with tech gadgets can hinder an employee's success at work, said Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, a Chicago-based workplace training and employee development company.

If workers are using phones right before or after meetings, they aren't creating relationships with other employees or supervisors. Such relationships could factor into promotions later, he said. Besides, executives may assume a younger employee is playing instead of doing work on his or her phone, he said.

Tech tip: Turn off the mobile device at the office unless business needs you to be on it, Karsh said. That way there won't be an alarm or ringing phone in the middle of a meeting. Shut it off when on vacation or tell work to only email you at your personal email account if it's urgent.

Love life

How do gadgets affect your love life?

"Digital devices are great for life overall. It certainly made our lives more convenient and efficient. In regards to the dating world, use text and email appropriately," said Bela Gandhi, founder of smartdatingacademy.com in Chicago.

For online dating, exchange three to five emails before talking on the phone, she said. By listening to the tone of their voice, daters can tell whether that person is upbeat and positive.

Her advice when it comes to asking someone on a date is to call them. Texts are subject to interpretation. Texting somebody too much can be seen as needy or potentially desperate, she said.

Tech tip: When on a date, put the phones away unless you're a single parent who needs to be on standby or you have a job that requires you to be on call 24/7, she said. "If you want to develop a connection with somebody and get them to like you, give them your undivided attention. You can't do that if the phone in front of you is blinking and vibrating," Gandhi said.

Copyright © 2011, RedEye