Stuck on screens: Local technology addiction expert calls internet ‘the world’s largest slot machine,’ suggests ways to cut down

  • Elizabeth Pangburn works in the office of her Shutesbury home on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Maryn Graskey, 20, a Smith College student, at Haymarket Cafe. Photo by Chris Goudreau

  • Steve Waksman, associate professor of music and American studies at Smith College, at Haymarket Cafe. Photo by Chris Goudreau

  • DR. DAVID GREENFIELD Courtesy photo

  • Elizabeth Pangburn works in the office of her Shutesbury home on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elizabeth Pangburn works in the office of her Shutesbury home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elizabeth Pangburn works in the office of her Shutesbury home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elizabeth Pangburn works in the office of her Shutesbury home on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/9/2020 11:50:17 PM

Elizabeth Pangburn, 40, of Shutesbury, tries to limit her screen usage, but as a freelance costume designer and arts administrator for a nonprofit, she said it can be challenging to disengage from technology.

“All of the things that get me jobs, I do it through my laptop,” she explained. “The screen then becomes my primary collaborator. But it inhibits creativity because it’s kind of addictive with that constant stimuli. There’s this balance where I need to get work done, but I also know I need to get off the screen so I can be a functional creative mind.”

Whether it’s browsing through social media, watching videos or searching the internet, technology and screens are prevalent throughout our society today. But all that time staring at screens every day adds up.

Dr. David Greenfield, medical director of the Greenfield Recovery Center in Leyden for internet, technology and video game addiction, said if you look at screen for three hours a day and you have an 80-year life span, you’d have spent a decade of your life looking at a screen.

“If you spend six hours a day, you’d have spent 20 years of your life staring at a screen,” he explained. “We’re not talking about work and school. We’re talking about wasting time and recreational use. It’s a pretty startling statistic.”

Greenfield, founder of the center, said he thinks most people would agree that they are spending more time looking at screens than they’d like to. About 10 percent of people use computers, phones, and other screens to a point where it becomes a problem in their lives, he said.

The center in Leyden treats people who have screens impact their work or academic life, get into legal trouble with internet or technology use or have addictions to video games or internet pornography.

“A big part of changing patterns in behavior is becoming aware of how much you use it, why you use it, and to start setting limits, and to make choices around your values for your time,” Greenfield noted, adding that the center provides counseling and therapy sessions for people who have difficulties moderating their use of technology or screen time. The center also offers a six-week residential program as a treatment option.

But he also had advice for anyone interested in cutting down their screen time, whether they are children, teens or adults — be mindful about your use.

He added that being mindful about one’s use of technology and moderating screen time is one of the best methods to decrease your time looking at a screen whether that’s for children, teens or adults.

Greenfield said just by having your phone in a sleeping area, there’s an increase in a stress hormone called cortisol in the human body. He advised not having phones in the bedroom, including using cell phones as alarm clocks and also suggested to not use screens an hour before bedtime.

“Viewing screens changes circadian rhythms and sleep patterns and increases risk of inadequate sleep,” Greenfield stated.

Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said it’s easy to understand why people overuse cell phones and computers. It is because engaging with technology releases dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) in the brain.

“The internet is the world’s largest slot machine,” he explained. “So every time you go online you don’t know what you’re going to find, what you’re going to find, and how good it’s going to be. And when you do find something that’s desirable or interesting or pleasant, you get a small hit of dopamine. You get reinforced with that pleasurable neuro-chemical just like with a slot machine. Because it’s variable and unpredictable, though, it tends to be more addictive … And the smartphone becomes the world’s smallest slot machine.”

While much attention has been given to reducing children’s screen time, Greenfield said it is also helpful for adults, especially parents of those children, to cut down.

“Your child or teen is watching you and how you manage your tech use and they will be far more likely to adopt healthy technology habits if they see you doing the same,” Greenfield stated.

Difficulty disengaging

During a recent afternoon, Maryn Graskey, a 20-year-old Smith College student was working on school work at Haymarket Cafe in downtown Northampton.

“I feel like I want to get less [screen time],” she explained. “I have an iPhone and it says how much screen time I have. Sometimes it’s just wild when I look at it. The average last week was about four hours a day.”

Graskey said she has conflicting views about technology and screen usage. On one hand, it’s easier to utilize cell phone apps for her coursework at school, but it’s more difficult for her to step away from her phone.

“It definitely fills my time sometimes just for the sake of filling time,” she added. “I’ll be on my phone scrolling through my email. I don’t need to be doing this, but I’m just so attached to having my phone in front of me.”

Steve Waksman, associate professor of music and American Studies at Smith College, was also at Haymarket Cafe that afternoon working on research for a book he’s currently writing.

He said during a typical day he spends two to two-and-a-half hours of screen time on his phone. But, he also spends three to four hours a day on his computer through his academic work.

“It’s an occupational hazard as an academic,” he explained. “I think one thing that’s crucial for me is that screen time can mean I’m writing or doing research. It’s not idly looking at social media. But I do a lot of that, too, and the two go together in a way that’s kind of weird. And yet, I think it’s kind of normal for people who do academic work that you’re stuck to the screen, but you kind of need to divert your attention in order to stay fresh.”

Waksman said his screen time might be diversified depending on what he’s doing, but it still adds up.

“One thing I definitely noticed myself is my attention span has definitely changed a lot,” he explained. “I’m tempted to say I have a shorter attention span. Even more than it being shortened, it’s more fragmented. I make a point of reading hard copy books so I don’t spend all the time staring at a screen. But while I’m doing that I’m checking my phone every few minutes to see if I got a notification. I never did that 15 years ago.”

For Pangburn, the costume designer and arts administrator from Shutesbury, she said she has started to give herself breaks during eight- to nine-hour days at work.

“You really can’t do your job without it, but you can’t be a healthy human and be on the screen that much,” Pangburn said. “When it comes to work, it’s been a really delicate balance to strike.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at

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