Image: Sutichak Yachiangkham/Shutterstock

My First Session at a Private Tech Addiction Clinic

A private London hospital offers tech addiction treatment to celebs, execs, and even children.

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Aug 19 2015, 1:30pm

Image: Sutichak Yachiangkham/Shutterstock

I'm flat on my back staring at a strip-lit ceiling doing breathing exercises—the kind of calming, in-out motions expectant mothers learns in ante-natal class. My mind blank of thoughts, I'm experiencing something half-yoga class, half-AA meeting.

This is my first session of technology addiction treatment at west London's private Nightingale Hospital. If you suffer from a compulsion to check your phone or watch internet pornography, you're almost certainly graduating towards the club. It can aggravate depression, cause insomnia, and leave you feeling anxious and cut off from society, despite being hardwired to the world 24/7. At Nightingale Hospital, to crack these habits, they attempt to reboot your sleep patterns, diet, sex life—basically everything. I am told that, without realising it, staring at screens every day has car crashed my life.

A centre for all things addiction, the Nightingale Hospital sees everyone from celebrities (in the recent documentary Amy, Ms Winehouse is seen checking in) to executives, and even children. Depressingly for those in the click generation, technology addiction is the fastest growing vice seen by consultants at Nightingale. A study by Hong Kong researchers reported six percent of the world's population are tech addicts, but a consultant at Nightingale suggest as many as 70 percent of UK city workers suffer without realising.

"I treat CEOs from IT companies who are like androids—they project manage their families, bark at their children, and treat their wives like members of staff," says physiologist and sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. "They have zero sex life or intimacy. Soon they do no exercise or socialising and exist off caffeine, energy drinks, and cigarettes. They are so hard-wired to their devices they don't make time to eat or drink."

The exterior of Nightingale Hospital. Image: Nightingale Hospital

Horribly, that sounds like me. I'm firmly (and pathetically) in the digital dependency camp. Every day I wake up and immediately check my phone for news, emails, and footie gossip before I check Facebook and Twitter. By the time I've had breakfast it's time to check them all again. It's a day-long cycle. I arrive at work. Check my phone. Wake up for a 4 AM loo break. Check my phone. Even watching my brother take his wedding vows. Check my phone. I catch myself putting my Mom on speakerphone so I can pointlessly trawl through my apps and I've even worked out a way I can put my phone on the soap dish when I shower. That's before I've even factored in the hours I spend in front of a laptop, legitimately for work. In fact, so bad is my problem that Ramlakhan diagnoses that, if I swapped my tech addiction for alcohol in terms of exposure and dependency, I'd be drinking two bottles of wine per night.

Thing is, my behaviour is reaffirmed by all my other techy mates being just as bad as me. While many of us rely on our phones for work, the Nightingale doctors say that for some it becomes a crutch. Dr Richard Graham pioneered the treatment centre five years ago and has already seen over 300 patients. He says phones, tablets, and social networking all give an addictive buzz, similar to hitting up a fruit machine. "It is a small thrill if someone 'likes' a Facebook update, responds to a tweet or sends us a message or email. It is incredibly easy to feel we need this instant gratification from your phone. That's why so many people check their devices constantly."

***

Treatment at the clinic isn't how I expected. I'm not sure what I expected, mind—people strapped to beds with gadgets well out of reach? A giant non-tech soft play area? In reality, each session—held in calm, light-blue painted rooms—is about taking solace and strength from contemplation and personal thought, and getting to the bottom of why you are hiding away from life behind your Apple screen. No texting or soullessly gawping at Lad Bible memes, that's for sure.

Treatment for internet addiction is quite different at a Chinese boot camp. Read more: A Day at China's Toughest Internet Addiction Rehab

The Nightingale Hospital won't let me interview other patients, but I do track down another tech addict online who has had treatment—not through here, but through her doctor and a psychiatrist.

Hannah, 33 (not her real name), has a two-year-old son and lives in south London. She has had other addictions—everything from smoking to fairly hefty drug use—but her online needs grew out of control. "I am a single mum and I felt horribly lonely all the time," she tells me. "I had no cash to do half of the other 'new mum' things and I couldn't leave the house because of the baby. Staring at the internet, Facebook, Twitter, shopping sites, Snapchat, anything that kept my attention was what I did. I hated it."

Soon, her problems got worse. "I'd feel physically sick and more vulnerable if I didn't have a device in my hand. I'd find myself staring at Facebook at 4 AM and wonder why I was there. If the baby cried I'd get angry even if he wasn't interrupting anything. When he broke my iPad I was so angry I frightened myself and sought help. I was given sleeping pills, therapy and, crucially, I threw away all my gadgets. I used library open access for five months after that."

***

So wired in are workers in the UK that increasing numbers are turning to £16,000 ($25,000) addiction drying out clinics to wean themselves off the web. In my journey through tech addiction, I learn about professional, respectable fathers—under threat of divorce from their wives—who still hide a spare phone in the toilet so they don't have to go cold turkey. Teenagers with repetitive strain injury (RSI) from repeated texting and gaming. Toddlers who won't eat or sleep without an iPad beside them.

Ramlakhan says she is now treating all sections of society for technology dependency. She has even previously treated a Chelsea footballer whose technology use was interrupting his sleeping patterns. She reveals, "The player would have sleep problems before a big game and he would get up in the night and play computer games simply because he couldn't sleep. This then obviously affected his performance. But with around six sessions he was sleeping normally again."

An interior at Nightingale Hospital. Image: Nightingale Hospital

My girlfriend despairs and, most depressingly of all, so do I. Like many Brits, I now statistically spend longer online than I do in bed—which obviously then affects your sex life. When I go to bed I either stare at my screen some more or am too whacked to have sex.

Then, if you throw in porn, you can kill you libido stone dead. A leading authority on sex and tech addiction, therapist Robert Weiss of the Elements behavioural health clinic in California says tech use can kill your sex life. "We don't get addicted to the devices themselves, more the content and the sense of connection. However, there is evidence that some of this may affect sexual function. Some tech-driven addicts, especially those who use digital pornography, struggle with erectile dysfunction, inability to reach orgasm, and the like."

Worryingly for men like me, technology could be wrecking your libido even if you aren't using pornography. Weiss says, "Men especially are more turned on by new stimuli. Over time, they're likely to find a real world partner less interesting and less stimulating than the endless supply of new and exciting material on screen and in his head."

The first part I need to get right is going to bed, says Ramlakhan, as—surprise, surprise—you're more likely to have sex if you actually talk to your partner. "Few people sleep in a technology-free environment—no laptops, screens or phones within your reach," she says. "If you are phone checking before bed, or even reading a Kindle, the amount of artificial light can hugely disrupt your sleep. You are literally telling your eyes it's daytime by pouring light into them."

***

I am twitching for my phone already when I am asked to lie on the floor and just breathe for two minutes (seriously, try how hard it is to lie on the floor for two minutes and not think about your gadgets). Ramlakhan soothes, "Associate your phone checking with breathing. Each time you feel the need to check a device, take one breath and allow the air to fill your stomach."

I imagine my brain as a control panel of bored and hungry cells, desperately trying to drag my eyes back to the task at hand. Lying on the surgery floor, simply counting my breaths is fine for now, but I point out that this isn't likely to help me in office meetings or on dinner dates. I am told it is about increasing 'mindfulness.' "We get easily trapped into taking our phones everywhere. Bring back some mindfulness—be in the here and now. Think to yourself, 'Do I need my phone in my hand?'"

I am told to begin my road to recovery by banning use of phones or tablets during key points of the day—at breakfast, in all meetings, and watching any TV shows. That way my brain can focus on one thing at a time.

Leaving the clinic after my taster session—I haven't obviously had the full £16,000 course—it's near impossible to shake off my tech anxieties. If you want to quit smoking, you can avoid others smokers. If you want to kick technology, where do you move to? My first plan is to buy an alarm clock—so I don't need my phone by my bed at night. Just as soon as I have checked Twitter again, that is.