The way we engage with one another continues to evolve as new technologies, apps, and social media channels appear. But while we’re able to connect with more people, over greater distances, much faster than ever before, the balance of quantity over quality remains in question.
As we become more reliant on our relationships with technology than with people, there is growing concern that it could have serious implications for our mental health. In a study sponsored by Facebook it was found that eighty percent of users check their phones within fifteen minutes of waking up, and with other studies finding that too much time online can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression, the issue of tech addiction is something to be taken seriously.
Addiction can come in many forms, and essentially boils down to a compulsion to use a substance, or engage in a behaviour, to make yourself feel good. Addictions are generally categorised in one of two ways; physical, or psychological.
Physical addition occurs when a person’s body depends on a substance, such as a particular drug, and suffers from withdrawal symptoms if they go without. Psychological addiction is when the cravings for a substance or behaviour are driven by emotional or psychological desire, as opposed to a physical dependence. However, psychological addiction can manifest in just as physical a way as physical addiction, with the mind producing symptoms like irritability and insomnia.
But social media?
The American Society of Addiction Medicine characterises addiction as “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioural control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response”. We recognise the usual addictions to substances like drugs and alcohol, or to behaviours such as gambling, sex, or overeating. But why not technologies, or social media?
The reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability offers treatment for people suffering from tech, gaming, and internet addictions. Dr. Hilarie Cash, co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of the centre, argues that if you are to identify an addiction by asking “are there negative consequences to your use? And if so, do you continue in spite of those negative consequences?”, then technology addiction is as real as addiction in any other form.
As Dr. Cash says, “there are so many behavioural addictions out there, like: social media, sex, porn, and gambling. I think it’s silly to exclude digital addictions. They are just like any other addiction in that they produce both a sense of euphoria and profound withdrawal. The addiction literature needs to be more inclusive.”
reSTART first opened its doors in 2009, and a number of similar centres have been opening up in the years since. A two to three month program with Dr. Cash will set you back close to $20,000, and involves 45 days of abstinence from technology. Housing is modelled on the Oxford House, a model for substance abuse and addiction recovery.
There are other more affordable options, such as the one offered by online therapy service Talkspace. It, paradoxically, operates through text messages to your therapist, but as the centre’s Katherine Glick explains you can’t necessarily abstain from social media, simply because it’s everywhere. So, instead of avoiding it, the program is about rethinking how you engage with it, “moving someone from a mindless place to one where they are more mindful about their relationship to technology.”
Up for debate
As Mae Wiskin wrote in a recent article for Vice, “although various technological addictions are still under consideration in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, some argue that tech overuse ought to be classified as a subset of behavioural addictions, similar to other non-chemical addictions such as pathological gaming and compulsive shopping”.
Katherine Glick predict’s that digital and internet addiction will be incorporated into the DSM, in a similar fashion to the way gambling disorder was in 2013, along with more treatment facilities becoming available. “I do think that all healthcare systems are moving toward an online model”, she says, “We are in a technology growth overload and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon; I think it’s just going to ramp up and continue to increase.”
The underlying cause
There is debate surrounding the underlying cause of addiction. Johann Hari, author of the book Chasing The Scream: The First and The Last Days of the War on Drugs, has put forth the compelling argument that addiction is an adaptation of the brain to a lack of adequate human connection. One of the main models for viewing addiction is seeing the problem lying in the addictive nature of the substance or behaviour. This theory became popular in the 1980s during an ad campaign by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which explained that “only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
The theory was first established through experiments in which rats were isolated in cages with two water bottles, one of which was laced with drugs. The rats would almost always choose the drugged water, and keep going back for more until they killed themselves. However, psychology professor Bruce Alexander saw a flaw in the research – the rats were alone, with nothing to do but take the drugs. He remodelled the experiment, and called it Rat Park. It was a rat wonderland, with toys and food and friends, and still the same two water bottles. He found that the rats in a happy environment barely touched the drugs and none of them died, while those that were isolated and lonely consistently became obsessed with the drugged water.
These findings make way for a significant change in the way we view all addictions. Instead of holding the substance or behaviour responsible, the perspective needs to shift so that addiction is seen as an attempt to fill a lack somewhere in a person’s life. This can be used as motivation to consider how we can best support one another to lead more connected, fulfilling lives.