Addiction or Enrichment?

In the not-too-distant future, young people complaining to their grandparents about slow tech will need to brace themselves.

“You think your Galactipedia machine is slow? Why, when I was your age, we had to go to the library—a fifteen-minute drive, uphill, in the snow. We used a card catalog! Come here and let me tell you all about the Dewey Decimal System…”

Let’s pause for a moment to pity Generation Z, before we put them through this.

Social Media Is Destroying Society!

In the meantime, however, we are in the midst of a debate, perhaps ironically carried out on electronic gadgets, about modern technology. Will it leave us isolated and depressed, destroying our social skills and turning us all into narcissistic selfie-snappers devoted entirely to our online profiles?

Tourists with a selfie stick

The view is that way, guys.

Maybe. “We make ‘friends’ who are not actually friends, develop ‘followers’ composed of people who would not follow us out of a room, and ‘like’ things whether we really like them or not,” writes David Carr, in an article about which one of his twitter followers commented, “Another day, another anti-tech screed.”

Carr retweeted it.

As Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” notes, every major technological innovation—he coined the term “paradigm shift”—was accepted only after protracted debate, between adherents to the old ways and early adopters. It is invariably generational, and the new paradigm is never universally adopted until the older generation (looking at you, proponents of Maxwellian electromagnetics) passes away.

facebook cigarettes

Admit it, this image made you want to check your Facebook account. Oh, you already did? Did you get any new likes? Felt good, didn’t it? That’s oxytocin.

Our era, in which evolution, automobiles, and Einstein are just part of life, now thrills revolution watchers with debates about “gadget addiction,” in particular “social media addiction.”

A quick Google search for “technology addiction” yields more than 45 million results. So you probably know why experts consider gadget addiction is dangerous: It denies real world connections; traps you in front of a screen; causes depression, isolation, jealousy, and selfishness; and will eventually lead to a world without even the warmth of a mother’s hug, because she’s on Facebook.

As YouTube celebrity Prince Ea points out in this online video, “We measure our self worth with likes rather than hugs.” Incidentally, both actions tend to produce a spurt of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” an essential component of human interaction.

But a meeting of the minds isn’t  real human interaction, is it?

Before deciding, take a closer look at articles describing tech addiction. Many make valid points, of course, but others rely on emotional arguments, small sample sizes, no controls, and definitions of addiction that include “subscribing to push notifications on their cellphones.”

Another concluded that, “users suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms when prohibited to use these networks for 28 days.” In the following paragraph, researchers note that many users lost contact with friends and family during that time, because they had been using social media to keep in touch.

Addicted to Love

Are we addicted to tech, or to friends and family?

masked clones on a bus

Spoiler: A world in which the population is apparently doomed to a life of meaningless toil enlivened only by continual entertainment and distraction courtesy of omnipresent gizmos and screens. So not really sci-fi at all, then.

The brilliant Charlie Brooker (his show, “How TV Ruined Your Life” is a must-watch for anyone concerned that they may be addicted to television) says that he checks his Twitter account “like an addict.” His new series, Black Mirror, asks: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?”

To which the Internets replied, “URGGA. ROU GRAAURH. RUH.>

Has Technology Really Made Us Lonelier? Are You Lonelier?

Both Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs and Bruce Alexander, who wrote Globalisation of Addiction, argue that addiction is caused not by chemical hooks or “addictive personalities.” The real problem is a lack of meaningful connections to other people.

This explains why some people become addicted to gambling, while others can take practically pure heroin for weeks in a hospital, then quit, cold turkey, with no serious withdrawal symptoms.

Two classic experiments make their case. In the first, rats isolated in boring cages invariably become addicted to cocaine- or heroin-laced water. When surrounded with friends, lovers, and toys in an experimental paradise called “Rat Park,” they only occasionally sampled the drugged water, and never become addicted.

At first, this looks like an argument in favor of gadget addiction. Tech obviously doesn’t hook you chemically. And, after all, you and most people you know are much lonelier now than you were back in 1993, right?


It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’

― A.A. Milne

Humans have, in general, become more isolated as our living conditions improve and family sizes shrink. Cars have replaced crowded sidewalks, televisions interrupt family conversation, and video games have supplanted team sports.

This would explain why drug addiction and depression are more common in first-world countries, particularly the most affluent demographics.

But is social media in the same category? You are communicating with real people, not actors or images. On Facebook, most of them are probably people you know. If it’s Twitter or your favorite subreddit, they’re real people with whom you have a lot in common.

kid on tablet

Back in my day, we played “Mom, she’s on my side of the car! Mom, she’s touching me!” for the entire ten hour drive, and it was good enough for us!

Are these connections imaginary, because they don’t involve hugs?

In some cases, they do lead to hugs. Some 16% of social media users schedule plans with friends online; 43% of people aged 18-24 do so. In fact, the happiest countries in the world are the ones that use social media the most .

Obviously, there is merit to worries about social technology. People who are already depressed tend to focus on negative information, enough of a temptation even when Facebook isn’t deliberately spiking your newsfeed with depressing stories. Cellphones and driving really are responsible for a quarter of all traffic accidents.

More than 46 million people have watched the video, “I Forgot My Phone,” which expresses the isolation of living in the real world while everyone else is checking their screens. It hits home for a reason.

But, when actual psychologists apply the standard definition of addictions to cell phones, they came to the conclusion that instead, “we are seeing an emerging form of social interaction.”

“Staying constantly in touch with your entire circle of friends may be the new norm in tech-land. These young adults are defining what forms of cell phone use are normal. And if being constantly in touch through your cell phone is normal, then it probably isn’t an addiction.”

It’s too soon to tell, but at least consider the possibility that technology—in particular smartphones, social media, and other forms of virtual communication—may not be the cause of our loneliness and depression. Those things existed long before the Internet, after all.

Perhaps they may even end up offering some relief to humanity’s age-old struggles with addiction, isolation, and this imperfect thing we call life.

2016-10-21T11:03:10-05:00 By |Categories: Communication, Psychology, Technology|Tags: , , , |