Vancouver neurotherapist Dr. Mari K. Swingle provides clear scientific proof to back up our deepest concern: we\u2019re all guinea pigs in a massive experiment to determine what \u201ci-Technology\u201d (video games, social media, cell phones and other screen-based devices) will do to our brains. The evidence is in, and it\u2019s frightening. Author of i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior and the Evolution of Our Species is now on a mission. Swingle, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, met with Your Workplace to share her message for employers: Internet addiction is a legitimate illness, and there is a good chance that it is negatively affecting employee wellness and productivity. Taylor: You are a pioneer in this area. Although your book was first published in 2014, lately there has been more media attention. What motivated you to focus on this topic? Swingle: I was a practicing clinician. Around 2005, I started noticing that a subset of children seeking therapy was not getting better with treatments that usually worked quite well. Another subset was getting better, but within three months or so, their improvements appeared to reverse. I had a pretty good track record helping children, in particular those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD and behavioural issues, so I had some big questions regarding what might be going on. Over time those questions were not going away but in fact getting stronger. In 2010, I was finishing up my PhD and looking for a dissertation topic. I initially wanted to do something on ADHD but was not quite sure as it seemed that everyone was studying this topic. Then there was a micro-epiphany: many kids who were not getting better were into gaming. I started theorizing that there might be some kind of connection with screens. So I decided to have a closer look. And the more I looked, the more I saw the potential for correlations with lack of scholastic and behavioural wellness in children and also mental health issues in adults. Can you tell us about your findings? What did you discover through your research? With the help of electroencephalography, or EEG, I was able to explore the effect that digital technology was having on the brain. I switched my focus from children to adults because it was less complicated to get permission for dissertation research with adults. In my first study, I found 77% of my sample had patterns of brain deregulation or an expressed psychological issue, including anxiety, depression, agitation, and insomnia. From the EEG scans, I discovered that there were very specific signatures associated with excessive Internet usage. In other words, what I found was very powerful, and when I started to look for specific patterns in the children seeking our services, I found these patterns everywhere. Perhaps the biggest finding was that screen-based technology has the power to change how our brains function. One of the things that you highlight in your book i-Minds is that constant use of digital media speeds up our brain. What does this do to our well-being? We can become hyper-aroused, making our brains rev too high, which can result in anxiety and a form of depression termed \u201canxious depression.\u201d We are always on and always on the go. In terms of health, the biggest impact is not knowing what to do with ourselves, not knowing how to entertain ourselves without our digital devices. We need to be able to sit in silence, to allow ourselves to assimilate information and be a bit bored in order to come up with new ideas. The second concern is that if our brains are always getting input and we don\u2019t have a quiet point, we don\u2019t integrate the new information and we don\u2019t see patterns. Pattern recognition is key in the development and maintenance of general intelligence and wisdom over the lifespan. One of the very first interviews that I did in 2014 was about what Internet addiction was doing in people\u2019s private lives. And if it was harmful in our private lives, what was being on the computer all the time in our work lives doing to our brains, and was this harmful? Not many people were familiar with the issues at that time. But we were starting to see the emergence of specific forms of work burnout \u2014 and eye strain and eye fatigue. I think at a certain point we have to take responsibility for our own behaviours as well. But there is a Catch-22. Internet addiction is like an eating disorder. It\u2019s not like you can just stop, since technology is integrated into our lives. Our devices are great tools, and if used correctly can also be great fun, but we need to set boundaries. How does Internet addiction impact the workplace? The first is a generalized edginess. The second is a compromised ability to listen. Digital media keeps our brains revving very fast, and when we are in this state we don\u2019t want to be interrupted, and so we react by getting angry or upset at those who distract us. In addition, digital media is also an ideal tool of avoidance and can be used to hide or procrastinate. iMedia can also have a negative impact on workplace communication. Years ago we thought that email and digital communication were more efficient than telephone or face-to-face, but it actually appears to be the reverse. It takes longer to respond well by email, and frequently your answers have to be more precise because they can be back-referenced. This can be good and bad \u2014 good as there is a track record, and bad as they can easily be misinterpreted and\/or can be used against you, in incomplete contexts. The Catch-22 is that we often don\u2019t think that much when we email \u2014 just like texting, we often just purge and send. The question is how long does it take to sort out an issue face-to-face or over the phone versus back and forth using email? It takes longer using email. If I\u2019m talking with you we can sort something out quickly, but if I\u2019m responding to your email my attention might be divided as I try to multi-task and respond to something else at the same time. This would be considered rude if we were talking in person or over the phone but isn\u2019t obvious through email. That divided attention reduces our efficacy and makes our solutions not as good as they would be if we focused on one thing at a time. This has implications for teams as well. If we have team meetings and one person is looking at their phone overtly or under the table, what does that do to their attention span? How much are they missing? And again the solutions will not be as good if people are not giving them their full attention. We really have to look closely at not only the tools but how we use them, and judge their capacity to lessen or improve our efficiency accordingly. If a manager suspects that an employee has an Internet addiction, what steps can they take to deal with it? First of all, if an employee is suspected of Internet addiction but it is only affecting their personal life after hours and they are efficient when at work then it is not up to the manager to judge. When managers do have the right and should be involved is when people are spending a lot of time online during work. What are they really doing? The challenge is to determine if someone at work has a problem. We are expected to be on our devices: computer, phones etc. all day, or most of the day, so it\u2019s not always easy to determine if an employee is working or not. Lots of employers now have the capability and can check to see what employees are doing on company screens during work time. Employees should be aware of this as well. Many companies will have human resource policies in place for alcohol and drug abuse by employees. A similar process could be used to develop policies around i-technology abuse. How do employers know a problem is related to too much time on the Internet and not something else? Lack of wellness or compromised work performance can be due to many things \u2026 But as it relates to known screen addiction, it would be helpful for employers to know whether or not an employee has a screen addiction or a content addiction. If it is a content addiction, the person may be addicted to gambling or pornography. Again, if they are doing this off the company clock, is this an employer\u2019s business? If they are doing it at work it is an entirely different issue. And then there is also mixed ground; meaning it is off the clock but leaving an employee compromised at work due to fatigue, agitation, etc. It is rather like alcohol: drinking on and off the job versus drinking so much off the job it affects work. Back to content versus process: it can be very difficult to tease the difference out. Is it technology itself or that is the problem? I have had a lot of industry people talk to me off the record. They were very, very aware of what the technology was doing. Today, computer scientists using AI and neuroscience to look for ways to make people more addicted. Many industries have done this in the past \u2014 think about tobacco and more subtle addictive influences like advertising and food. If you look at the major innovators in the field of technology, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates for instance, they never made any secret that they restricted technology use for their own children. It wasn\u2019t publicized, but it was not hidden either. Many individuals who work in the industry also send their kids to schools that don\u2019t permit use of screens in the classroom until the children are 12 years old. We owe it to ourselves to really look into it. I\u2019m on a mission. My new motto is \u201cfrom addiction to awareness.\u201d All of us are on that spectrum. We cross over into addiction when we don\u2019t take responsibility for being aware. When developing human resource policies and approaches to help employees deal with i-addiction, what should HR managers keep in mind? Is it effecting productivity? One approach is to prohibit or limit the personal use of devices during work hours except on breaks. This will help keep people\u2019s arousal levels down. Employees will say they are checking for messages from spouses or children, but 20 years ago if a spouse or child kept phoning the receptionist asking for an employee it would have been considered ridiculous. Now it is standard. We should be asking, \u201cWhat communication deserves priority during work hours?\u201d If you want to phone your spouse or children, do so during your lunch break. Remember that excessive or obsessive use of i-technology can lead to exhaustion, irritability and anger. We\u2019ve covered a lot of ground today \u2014 is there anything else you would like to share or add? I think the message I would like to get across in the workplace is: What is the employer expecting and what is the employee expecting? Is there too much crossover between the personal and the workplace? It would be very healthy for people to take back their personal lives and conversely it would be very healthy for employers to be clear on the professional expectations . But digital media is not the enemy, and a good general rule to follow \u2014 as in all of life \u2014 is that of balance. It is not if we do or do not use screen-based technologies; it is how and why \u2026 and how often \u2026 and how much \u2026 and how early we use them.