Is Technology Addiction Real?

Is Technology Addiction Real?


There is a lot of sensational headlines lately about technology addiction, phone addiction, social media addiction, and so on.

But what if it is all a bunch of garbage? What if those are not really addictions at all?

Market Watch says that “…I am a psychologist who has worked with teens and families and conducted research on technology use, video games and addiction. I believe most of these fear-mongering claims about technology are rubbish.”

To some extent it is going to come down to how we define the term “addiction.”

To me, an addiction has to involve some sort of dependence and withdrawal. In other words, if you take away social media from a “social media addict,” if you are not observing any kind of actual withdrawal symptoms, should we even label that as an addiction?

I am not debating the fact that certain individuals can become so obsessed with social media or technology that it has a negative impact on their life. I realize that this can and does happen to certain individuals. But then if we choose to label that as a real “addiction” then we are using a type of language that implies certain solutions. And those solutions may not make any sense for what is actually happening.

In order to make sense of this argument you have to understand where the addiction treatment model really is and how it treats the typical addict.

Part of what makes a “real” addiction so tricky is that the individual does not really know what hit them–they are completely baffled as to how they have lost control and how their life has spun so far out of the ordinary. With drug and alcohol addiction in particular, part of the challenge is that the addiction itself is compromising their thought process and their ability to reason and make smart decisions. In other words, the addiction feeds on itself because it subverts your ability to problem solve. That is part of the special challenge that makes a “real” addiction so difficult to deal with.

Going to inpatient treatment may seem like overkill at first to the layperson, but to someone who is strung out on alcohol or other drugs, going to inpatient rehab is the only possible way for them to pull themselves out of their current state of madness. It makes perfect sense to treat alcoholism with inpatient care because the alcoholic is completely out of control and seems to drink against their own will. Their freedom is a liability because alcohol is available everywhere. In order to really overcome their problem they have to “lock themselves up” to some extent (though, realize that most rehab centers are strictly voluntary).

The studies that are currently being done are exposing the real truth about the differences between technology addictions and substance abuse. One of the key differences is that the technology “addiction” is not compromising the ability to reason and make sound decisions in the same way that drugs or alcohol does.

Because of this we may need to change the way that we approach some of these various addictions and disorders, and we might need to change the language that we use when we discuss them. The language is important because certain terms bring to mind certain solutions. For example, we tend to think of inpatient treatment and group therapy support when it comes to “real addictions” such as with drugs and alcohol. But for someone who has a disorder in which they are using social media for a certain number of hours every day, is inpatient treatment and 12 step programming really the ideal solution? Experts are starting to wonder, and they are imagining now that we should probably not treat all of these disorders in exactly the same way.

The 12 step program evolved after it started with alcoholism. From there, people who were addicted to narcotics realized that the same exact solution found in the 12 steps could be applied to drug addictions just as easily as it applied to alcoholism. And following that it has also been carried over to treat other addiction such as over eating, sex, gambling, and so on.

But at some point we may have to take a step back and realize that the exact nature of a sex addiction, or a Facebook addiction, may not be the same thing as a drug or alcohol addiction. That is really what this article is getting at–the idea that social media use, even if extremely heavy, really has nothing in common with the kind of behavior and chemical processes that are involved with substance abuse.

Is it possible for someone using their cell phone to connect to social media to such an extent that they neglect their own personal hygiene? Sure. But does that mean that they are “addicted” to social media in the same way that an alcoholic is addicted to booze? Not necessarily. And furthermore, the solution for each situation may turn out to be vastly different.

So trying to lump the social media addict in with the alcoholic and run them through the same exact treatment process may be a huge mistake. Our knowledge of addiction in general has exploded over the last few years, and we are learning more and more about addiction as a disease of the brain. But just because we can point at a heavy video game user and throw the label of “addict” at them, this does not necessarily mean that they have a similar process happening in their brain as what happens to the cocaine addict. Or to the opiate addict. Or to the alcoholic.

A similar hypothesis is forming around the idea of “sex addiction.” Scientists and researchers are starting to theorize that sex addiction is not a real addiction, not in the sense that it chemically alters the brain in a significant way. Again, just because someone is displaying compulsive sexual behavior, and just because it may have huge consequences in their life, does not necessarily mean that the label of “addiction” is going to make any sense. Furthermore, it may be leading us to prescribe the wrong treatments for these various disorders.

That is the real concern here–not that we label things correctly or accurately, because ultimately no one cares what we call a particular disorder or behavior. What we care about is getting the right help for the people who truly need it–regardless of what kind of disorder or addiction they may have. Understanding the actual chemical brain processes that are happening with a given disorder may become the key to figuring out how to best treat such conditions, and in the end that will be better for everyone.