Many of us joke that we are “addicted” to our phones and digital worlds. But internet addiction is a real thing and many of us might need to take the need for our devices, and our desire to check in with social networks no matter what, more seriously. 

The Struggle Is Very Real

A recent Washington Post article profiled reStart, a rehabilitation facility for young adults with internet addiction. This phenomenon — though noted as early as 1996 — is something many Millennials, and soon members of Gen Z, are facing pretty much alone. 

One subject of the piece, 22-year-old Alex, claims to be part of the “guinea pig generation” – meaning, the first generation to test the effects of constant mobile technology use in our daily lives. 

Alex dropped out of school because his game playing and online interactions before and during classes started to interfere with his life — one of the key symptoms of diagnosing any addiction.

Internet addiction falls under the umbrella of what American Addiction Centers describes as "behavioral addictions." These can be particularly hard to spot as addicts often appear to have it all together, or hide symptoms well: 

"When the behavior becomes impulsive in nature and begins to contribute to the development of a range of physical and mental health problems and the person is unable to stop, it is termed an addiction. Does this mean that you can be addicted to any behavior? It is a question that fuels an ongoing debate." 

And it's part of what makes classifying a new addiction like internet addiction that much more challenging. But the lack of "official" recognition doesn't mean we shouldn't watch for the signs and temper behavior that pushes an excess of technology use. 

Balancing Tech Use in the Office

Though some employers have boundaries around interrupting personal time with digital demands, too many still think nothing of sending after-hours emails and texts. Their thinking may be, "You don't have to read it now," but employees don't always know what can wait and what can't until they've read. 

Even when it's a small disruption, it puts employees into an "always working" mindset, where they feel compelled to check in with their devices at all times, for fear of missing something important. 

And that becomes a stressful way to live.

This mindset is more prevalent amongst generations born into digital tech, to whom the idea of not being constantly connected and available is alien. Parents are learning they need to intervene and teach teens and tweens how to use devices by setting and enforcing limits, and modeling behavior to prove one can live without a device seemingly glued to their hand.  

As these younger generations enter the workforce and move up the ranks, employers also must set the example, understanding and imparting the necessity of striking a balance between “plugged in time” and personal time.  

Here are some ways to do that: 

Schedule in down time

Whether an employee appreciation dinner, company picnic or a monthly group birthday party in the office, sending all calls to voice mail for an hour, or ending the work day a little early to take in a baseball game, it sends the message that having fun is important too. Hire a photographer so everyone can leave their phones in their pockets. Or enlist the aid of an organizations like Digital Detox to plan a device-free event or retreat.

Use scheduling apps to stick to office hours

Apps like Boomerang and Streak let you schedule outgoing emails, which is perfect when you remember something at 10 pm, but don't want to bother your staff until 8 am. Just as useful are the abilities to snooze or hide emails until they're relevant. And organizational features mean less time in your inbox getting sucked into a black hole of emails that don't really matter. 

Get active

Organize walk-a-thons on weekends or a weekly in-house kickball league. Offering discounts to local gyms or bringing the yoga instructor into the office can also instill a sense that moving is important — especially if work requires sitting at a computer all day. 

Want to up the ante? Offer incentives or prizes for participating in a local 5k, etc. 

It might not seem like a big deal, but creating a culture where employees' physical and mental health is a top priority is good business. Internet addiction may be a small problem now, but what happens if it turns out to be a bigger one? 

If we aren't careful, we could end up with an entire generation incapable of disconnecting. And who knows what the repercussions of that might be? 

Better not to find out.

Title image Ryan Tauss