Does repeating a falsehood make it true? It seems so, at least when it comes to the myth that technology is addicting us all. While a reassessment of the role our gadgets play in our lives is healthy, many people are buying into a self-defeating fallacy that ironically makes it harder to dial back.
Not only does the idea that technology “hijacks” our brains smack of the same moral panics leveled at previous pastimes—Novels corrupt women’s minds! Pinball machines create an unstoppable compulsion!—it also miscategorizes what addiction really is.
What addiction is and isn’t.
From a Latin word referring to enslavement, addiction is a compulsive dependency that harms the affected individual. It is a behavior or substance the person has a very difficult time stopping, even when someone wants to. An addiction, in the words of neuroscientist Marc Lewis, an addiction researcher and former addict, “is the brain focusing on just one thing, all else be damned.”
Addiction is a pathology. It is not simply liking something a lot.
In over a decade of researching, teaching, and writing about the power of technology to shape our behavior, I’ve come across many parents convinced their children are “addicted” to their phones. But when I enquire about the children's behavior at home, most tell me they regularly have family meals with their kids and that their grades at school are fine. How can that be if they are using apps designed to addict them?
Many potentially addictive things do not addict everyone and can be used safely in moderation by nearly everyone. People drink alcohol and have sex, but that doesn’t make us all alcoholics and sex addicts. Addiction is a matter of who is using, how much they are using, and the harm done as a result. It’s never simply about the substance or behavior being used or abused.
We are quick to label behaviors we don’t like and don’t understand as “addictive” to provide a more satisfying reason to explain the things we (and others) do. It’s easier to say Netflix addicted me to binge-watching and that my child is addicted to Fortnite than to admit I didn’t spend any time planning something fun to do together as a family.
Watch what you say.
The words we use to describe our behaviors matter. While mental health professionals must offer resources for those struggling with technology overuse and the pathology of technology addiction, when we rush to call ourselves or our kids “addicted,” while doing little to try and change our ways beyond blaming big bad tech companies, we’re giving up our sense of agency when we need it most. Our perception of our own power to change is an important weapon against overuse.
A 2015 study of people addicted to alcohol found their level of physical dependency often mattered as much as their belief in their own power to change. Remember too that alcohol is a substance that crosses the blood-brain barrier; no one is injecting Instagram and freebasing Facebook. In most cases these are bad habits, not addictions.
It’s all in the brain.
But isn’t technology changing our brains? Doesn’t it send “squirts of dopamine” and activate the same brain regions cocaine does? These decontextualized, clickbaity ideas are repeated by people who haven’t comprehended the research.
Every repeated action, from learning to play the piano to studying a new language, rewires the brain and dopamine reinforces all forms of learning—neither of which are unique to online technology or necessarily sinister.
While some people with a predilection for addiction, such as those suffering from comorbidities like obsessive-compulsive disorder, may be at greater risk, the overwhelming majority of people will never become addicted to their phones. Furthermore, telling ourselves we are addicted promotes passivity instead of empowerment.
The government-waged “war on drugs” that began in the late 1960s has always been a losing battle precisely because it has often relied on the same outdated view of addiction, that the substance causes the addiction. We now know that addiction is typically a confluence of factors including the person and the psychological pain they seek to escape. For the vast majority, technology addiction will never be a problem, just as it isn’t with other substances and behaviors, so it’s senseless to regulate everyone’s use.
It’s ironic that at the same time states are deregulating cannabis, there is greater discussion of regulating the so-called addictive properties of personal technology. Nine percent of cannabis users suffer from a “cannabis use disorder” despite the fact that the psychoactive properties of cannabis are not addictive. How can this be? Because, with few exceptions, just about any analgesic is potentially addictive. Be it a substance or behavior, if it can take certain people’s minds off their problems and pain, someone is going to abuse it.
That’s why it is time for tech companies to help the small percentage of people they know are likely addicted. The silver lining of all the data being collected about each of us is that unlike other potentially addictive substances like alcohol, tech companies know how much each person is using their products. Through a “use and abuse policy,” companies could reach out to the people who spend an inordinate amount of time on their sites with a simple message: “Can we help?”
For most, it’s not about being addicted to technology, but getting the best out of it.
I’ve met with representatives from Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Snapchat, along with several other large consumer tech companies to discuss this solution. They’ve all assured me they’re looking into the proposition. But if they don’t act soon, use and abuse policies may be the basis of sensible regulation.
However, for those not actually addicted, the answer is not to vilify tech for its potentially addictive properties. After all, we want the products we use to be entertaining, sometimes even habit-forming. That’s what they’re designed to do and why we use them. We like that YouTube gives us topically relevant videos and that Instagram helps keep us in touch with friends. We want companies to use the same tactics that keep users hooked to social media or online games to also help us form healthy habits with apps encouraging exercise or learning a new language. Products designed to be engaging isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s often progress.
Of course, there are negative consequences to new, habit-forming technologies, such as the YouTube algorithm that has driven users toward extremist content. While those must be addressed, we must also not fool ourselves into thinking we’re hopelessly hooked. We don’t need to believe tech is addicting us to moderate its use. We can take steps to get the best out of tech without letting it get the best of us, like learning to cope with the emotional triggers that drive us to check our devices too much and by removing the pings and dings that don’t serve us. Remember, once we reclaim our phones and other devices to serve us instead of the tech companies, there’s little they can do about it. No matter how persuasive these companies’ products are, we are more powerful.
Clearly, there are many problems Big Tech needs to be held accountable for. I’m not giving them a free pass when it comes to privacy incursions, anticompetitive practices, and election meddling. But spreading the untruth that our devices are controlling all of our brains actually plays into these companies' hands by making it so. The belief robs us of our agency to take action. If we hold our breath waiting for regulators to do something or tech companies to make their products less engaging, we’re going to suffocate. Instead, it’s time we stop relinquishing control and hack back.
This article also appeared on Wired.com.
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