Scientists are only just beginning to study the effects of technology on our health. But when does a passion for gadgets turn into an addiction with symptoms that include headaches and back pain? Rob Sharp reports on a very modern affliction

Have you ever interrupted childbirth, coitus, a wedding or a graduation ceremony, a funeral or a minute's silence to send a text? Does the thought of going cold turkey from technology make you want to daub your social networking status in your own blood across the nearest brick wall? Is your ideal six-month sabbatical from work an extended period playing World of Warcraft in a windowless bedroom?

If so, then box up your broadband, swallow your SIM and visit Capio Nightingale Hospital in London, the location of Britain's first technology-addiction centre. You could be the country's latest gadget junkie, reared on years of laptop hogging and online high living. People are contracting the computer bug early: according to research published last September by Cranfield University School of Management in Northampton, of 260 secondary school pupils surveyed, 26 per cent spent more than six hours a day on the internet. This battalion of hi-tech tykes yielded 63 per cent who felt they were addicted to the web, 53 per cent who had a compulsive attachment to their mobile phones and 62 per cent who were bought their first computer before hitting the age of eight. But is technophilia really such a plague?

"If teenagers become more withdrawn they run the risk of being developmentally out of step with their peers," says Capio Nightingale's consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham. "It's a very young field of research, but there is some evidence to suggest that girls who spend too much time on Facebook miss out on key developmental steps and could feel immature. Extreme cases can put people's education and employment at risk. Then there are the physical aspects. You can have a poor diet, lose weight, not eat properly. If teenagers are pulling all-nighters they might turn to stimulants, like caffeine or taurine, and there is evidence that can increase anxiety in the long-term."

Teenagers, necessarily, are a high-risk group, as are those who've had a bereavement, separation or redundancy. But no one is free from its impact. Technology experts talk anecdotally of the Texan 13-year-old who developed repetitive strain disorder from texting, or the Korean couple who were building a "cyber-baby" on the internet but neglected to look after their real-life offspring. Scientists quizzed by The New York Times last week claimed juggling email, phone calls and other incoming information can change how you think or behave. It undermines our ability to focus. Having Twitter, RSS, Facebook, Digg and email feeds open at the same time capitalise on a physiological response to opportunities or threats. This stimulation provokes excitement, in the form of a dopamine squirt, which can be addictive. It can have deadly consequences – which is why talking on your mobile phone while driving was banned in Britain in 2003.

"At the moment people are trying to study the effects of high exposure to technology during the early parts of people's lives," continues Graham. "There are developmental windows in which 'wiring' of the brain takes place. For example, if you have a squint and it is not dealt with in the first five years of your life, part of your visual cortex switches off. It's a 'use it or lose it' principle in neurology and it might have relevance here."

So how can you tell if you've got an addiction? Capio Nightingale has an online quiz to test any automation fixation. Questions include: "Do you ignore and avoid other work or activities to spend more time on-screen?" But aren't many such choices unavoidable for modern workers – taken subconsciously? Speaking as a journalist who spends eight hours in front of a computer at work before transplanting himself to another desk and computer set-up at home, how can I tell whether I've got this evil sickness?

Graham says he has the impression that three or four hours of isolated technology a day is a concerning threshold, though that will be of scant use to millions of office workers around the country. "There is no black-and-white answer," adds Nerina Ramlakhan, who works at the hospital as a sleep and energy coach and has recently published the book Tired But Wired. "What we're looking for are abnormal behaviours. Are you spending all of your time using computers for gaming or surfing the web but need to spend increasing amounts of time on it to gain satisfaction? It's like a drug addict building up a tolerance. Are you lying about your use? Are you neglecting basic care of yourself, such as eating and hygiene? You need to keep an eye out for physical problems like obesity, back problems or headaches." It might not be much more than an excuse for rich parents to treat their children's otherwise normal compulsions, but let this be a warning to you. Advances in gaming are bringing social media into the physical realm much more, and it's only set to become a greater part of our day-to-day lives. Texting on the toilet is just the beginning.

How to tell if you're hooked

* Do you seek refuge in the virtual world at times of emotional turmoil? Spending time gaming rather than addressing problems is a classic sign of addiction.



* Addicts will often give up on evening reading – and even their sex lives – in favour of the joys of social networking. Tweeting before bed and accessing Facebook the moment you wake is indicative of obsessive compulsion.



* If you find yourself paying more attention to your Blackberry than your dinner companion, you may have a problem. New research suggests that as technology addiction takes hold, our ability to empathise diminishes.



* A genuine feeling of panic when your phone loses its signal or runs out of battery may indicate the beginnings of a dependency, psychologists say.



* Deceiving friends, family and yourself about how long you spend online is a clear sign of an embedded technology addiction that may need addressing.

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