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Addicted, not!

Posted on: May 30, 2021

The most recent episode of the Build For Tomorrow podcast is for anyone who has bought into the narrative of being “addicted” to technology. 

Podcast host, Jason Feifer, started with the premise that people who have no qualifications, expertise, or study in addiction tend to be the ones who make claims that we are helplessly “addicted” to technology.

Ask the experts and they might point out that such “addiction” is the pathologicalisation of normal behaviour. For an addiction to actually be one, it must interfere with social, familial, occupational commitments.

Another problem with saying that we are “addicted” to technology is that addiction is normally defined chemically (e.g., to drugs, smoking, or alcohol) and not to behaviourally (e.g., gaming, checking social media). Just because something looks like addiction does not mean it is addiction.

An expert interviewed in the podcast described how behavioural addiction had misappropriated chemical addiction in self-reporting surveys (listen from around the 28min 45sec mark). To illustrate how wrong this misappropriation was, he designed an “addicted to friends” study (description starts at the 32min mark).

  • Take the questions from studies about addictive social media use
  • Swap content for friendship measures, e.g., From “How often do you think about social media a day?” to “How often do you think about spending time with friends during the day?”
  • Get a large and representative sample (807 respondents) and ask participants to self report (just like other “addiction” studies)

Long story made short: This study found that 69% of participants were “pathologically addicted to wanting to spend time with other people”. Is this also not a health crisis?

If that sounds ridiculous, know that this followed the design of the alarming social media addiction studies but was more thorough. If we cannot accept the finding that people are addicted to spending time with one another, we should not accept similarly designed studies that claim people are “addicted” to social media.

Other notable notes from the podcast episode:

  • Non-expert addiction “experts” or the press like to cite numbers, e.g., check social media X times a day. This alone does not indicate addiction. After all, we breathe, eat, and go to the loo a certain number of times a day, but that does not mean we are addicted to those things.
  • The heavy use of, say, social media is not necessarily a cause of addiction. It might be a correlation made bare, i.e., a person has an underlying condition and behaviour manifests that way. The behaviour (checking social media) did not cause the addiction; it is the result of something deeper.
  • The increased use of social media and other technological tools are often enablers of social, familial, occupational commitments, not indicators of addiction. Just think about how we have had to work and school from home over the current pandemic. Are we addicted to work or school?

One final and important takeaway. The podcast episode ended with how blindly blaming addiction on technology is a form of learnt helplessness. It is easier for us to say: Something or someone else is to blame, not me. We lose our agency that way. Instead, we should call our habit what it is — overuse, wilful choice — not a pathological condition. 

I enjoyed this podcast episode because it dealt with a common and ongoing message by self-proclaimed gurus and uninformed press. They focus on getting attention and leveraging on fear. Podcasts like Build For Tomorrow and the experts it taps focus on meaning and nuance.

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