The dispatcher called in to the emergency department (ED) to alert us that someone had collapsed in the parking lot of the hospital. The emergency medical services swiftly brought the patient in and our team surrounded him, placing lines and drawing blood. In the midst of treating him, I learned that Jones* had just been released from prison where he had remained sober after years of heroin abuse. Immediately upon release, he had taken heroin from a hidden compartment in his car and took a second dose in the hospital parking lot where he subsequently collapsed. After he was stabilized in the ED, I had a chance to talk to Jones and was moved by his incredible motivation to become sober after his harrowing experience — he called detox units, discussed prevention strategies and expressed his strong commitment to get clean. Unfortunately, Jones was back in the ED only one week later after yet another overdose.
Witnessing the incredible power that his addiction had over his thoughts and motivations encouraged me to reflect on my own dependencies; in particular, I considered my increasing reliance on technology which notably worsened after enrolling in medical school. As a first-year medical student, my laptop became the cornerstone of my educational experience, providing access to my notes, assignments, lectures and other resources that enhanced my learning. However, I had also started to become dependent on the equipment. In between intervals of focused studying while on my 10-minute breaks, I would rush to my phone to send texts and access social media. From the bird’s eye, it must have been bizarre to see me switching from one screen for work to another screen for my break — spending my long study day alternating between the two devices and later even ending my day with a third device, a television, for “relaxation.”
Throughout the year, my friend group preferred to study at home and use their tech to stay connected via texts and WhatsApp messages. Especially in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, utilizing these tools for socializing was convenient for all of us, but it had also deprived us of the face-to-face interactions which are so important in the formation of quality relationships. Without the in-person interactions which normally occur through study groups, dinners and fun activities, our relationships remained somewhat superficial, lacking the deep bonds that typically form through shared experiences and interactions. I feel as though I have missed out on the meaningful friendships that are typically formed in medical school, especially when I hear my father recount his own medical school experiences from just a couple generations ago. I also wonder if my own reliance on technology truly qualifies as an addiction, and if so, what additional, less-obvious effects it may have had on my life.
It wasn’t until meeting Jones and learning the vocabulary and framework of addiction that I began to recognize what was so unsettling about my own reliance on technology; in particular, I saw and felt the coercive power of addiction — its ability to co-opt a person’s motivation and will. Jones’ desire to break free was palpable, yet he fell into the same cycle over and over. Seeking, preparing and using drugs consumed his time and energy; achieving “the next high” took precedence over all else, leaving little opportunity for freedom of thought.
I am well aware that my reliance on technology isn’t anywhere close to what Jones is going through. However, I can’t help but recognize a similar pattern in behavior and thought. Technological devices and their applications are booting up faster and faster, designed to capture and sustain attention longer, thus ever-increasing their addictive and immersive potential. As a result, my time and energy are being stolen by temptations of entertainment that may have been spent elsewhere — in reflection, sharing real world experience with loved ones and meeting strangers. Frustratingly, I find myself having an impulse to reach for my phone in quiet situations like the waiting room of a doctor’s office or a walk to a class or clinic — situations devoid of distractions in which I would formerly daydream and reflect. It’s not that I’m always “wasting time” with technology — I often read the news, opinion pieces or other meaningful material — but spending time on my device leaves less time for potential self-reflection and growth. I have used tech to ground myself in other people’s thoughts, other realities or even just simple distractions, at the expense of my own introspection. Recent revelations on social media’s ability to facilitate echo chambers, groupthink and disinformation have also made me consider that using technological devices demands not only the attention of my conscious mind, but it may even subconsciously shape my thoughts. Much like Jones’ mind was being manipulated by an addiction, my thoughts may be similarly shaped by external forces without the pushback of my own ideas.
Disturbed by these reflections, I initially responded by throwing myself overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, taking every precaution to avoid over-reliance on technology (in a particularly extreme example, I found myself pausing for a second to “reflect” after using the push-button ignition in my car each morning, as if using a traditional key instead would have provided such an opportunity to slow down and be more present). I soon realized, however, that such drastic compensatory behaviors are both unrealistic and unnecessary. The expansion of technology has permanently changed — and will continue to irreversibly change — our culture. The key, I learned, is finding balance by using tech in moderation, especially minimizing unnecessary or “pointless” use.
I am now more intentional about giving myself time each day to “just think.” Small gestures such as commuting in silence without the radio, going on walks without my phone and incorporating other brief respites from technology have provided moments of solitude where I can reflect. Like breaking any addiction, it may require numerous interventions and several cycles of relapses to cement a healthy relationship, but the potential to mentally recharge and experience new revelations through introspection amidst my busy, stimulus-heavy life is strong enough motivation to persevere.
*Note: the patient’s name was changed to protect privacy.