Suite News: Counseling for the Cyberdependent

I Used to Own a Smartphone, but Now it Owns Me


Dr. Jonathan Kandell

No, I’m not talking about some B-movie knockoff of Terminator. What I am talking about is how the smartphone is the ultimate (at least for now) technological gadget, our dependence on it, and its impact on how we deal with others and ourselves.

My name is Jonathan Kandell, a psychologist and Director of USG’s Center for Counseling and Consultation (CCC). Before coming to USG I worked at the UMCP Counseling Center for 22 years.  During the mid- to late-90s, I became known for my expertise in the area of Internet Addiction. The funny thing was, that I wasn’t really an expert; just someone interested enough to notice what was occurring and ask the right questions.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was a Graduate Assistant.  As part of my Assistantship, I did some computer programming (in BASIC!).  I noticed when writing code and staring into the screen, time seemed to disappear.  I would look up from my work, and it was three hours later!  Clearly, something was going on.

While at UMCP, a colleague and I recognized that some clients coming in for other issues (e.g., depression, loneliness, poor academic performance) were spending an awful lot of time on their computers.  We realized that there must be some connection and decided to offer a support group.  As you can probably guess, no one showed up!

Similar to other addictive behaviors, the first symptom is denial.  The students probably were too busy online, and their “real life” difficulties with others pushed them even further into cyberspace.  It’s a whole lot easier to interact with someone you can’t see or hear!  It’s also not nearly as satisfying. Interestingly, despite everyone having 8 zillion friends on Facebook, a major symptom today over 15 years ago is loneliness.  If people have so many “friends,” then why are they so lonely?

Communicating via text or e-mail is very different than face-to-face, or even on the phone.  Online interactions are “asynchronous,” not taking place in real-time.  If I’m having a face-to-face conversation with you, and I go silent for two minutes, you’re going to start wondering if there’s something wrong with me!  When texting, that’s normal.


It’s easy to come up with the “right” response when you have time to think.  The problem is, when you actually have to be in a face-to-face conversation, you don’t have that time.  You have to do your best and deal with the consequences.  Then there’s those messy non-verbals (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice, loudness, posture), all the things that can make communication so rich and interesting.  To understand their impact, just think how difficult it is to tell a joke online (sarcasm, anyone?) without someone misinterpreting it, or even being offended.  I believe too much online interaction actually reduces a person’s ability to cope with the enormous amount of (often-ambiguous) information one receives when talking face-to-face.  It’s no surprise that ongoing difficulties in face-to-face interactions can lead one to seek the refuge of the online world.

Well, my smartphone has been nagging at me to pay it some attention, so I must stop here.  If this blog post hits a little too close to home, and you’re wondering if you may have a problem controlling your online behavior, the CCC can help.  The CCC offers individual couples, and group counseling to help you directly address behavioral and emotional issues.  Call 301-738-6273 to set up an appointment, or stop by and see us in Room 1134 in the Priddy Library.

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