Have you ever interrupted childbirth, coitus, a wedding, funeral or graduation ceremony 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.

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 bevy of high-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 the age of 8. 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"If teenagers become more withdrawn they run the risk of being developmentally out of step with their peers," says Capio Nightingale's consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham.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.

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 capitalises 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? 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 tolerance."

TEAR YOURSELF AWAY
* Scientists fear that more and more people are becoming addicted to technology.
* If teenagers become more withdrawn they run the risk of being developmentally out of step.
* Juggling email, phone calls and other incoming information can change how you think or behave.
* Signs of addiction include lying about use and neglecting basic care of yourself, such as eating and hygiene.

- INDEPENDENT