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Posts Tagged ‘addiction

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.

Here are two contrasting video answers to whether our phones are addictive.

Video source

Video source

The first asks a question and provides answers based on what current models and research on addiction reveal.

The second already has an answer, likely one garnered from a straw poll or popularity contest. The outcome was assured, regardless of the facts. For example, it confused engagement with addiction.

The sad fact is that fewer people might eventually watch the first video and learn how addiction is defined. Instead, they might stick with the easy and lazy answers instead of the more nuanced and difficult ones.

Yes, weak, not week.

I look forward to some weekends more than others. I really need this weekend to recharge. It seems as if I did a week’s worth of work for each work day this week.

I know this because I am normally good at keeping up with my Twitter stream and RSS feeds. If I am near the end of the work day and my notifications tell me I have unprocessed items in the low hundreds, I know I have lost a vital part of my day.

Twitter and RSS are like vitamin pills and mild exercise. I might not really need them, but if I miss them I feel weak and lousy.

If I have an addiction at all, it is not to Twitter and RSS. I am addicted to learning on my own terms.

Like a peat fire, a colleague of mine reignited this deep-seated rant when we exchanged tweets yesterday:

I am worried that we are addicted to exams. Look at one neighbour comparing grades with another. Look at both of them looking for tuition for their kindergarten-attending kids. Look at schools sacrificing vacation time to prep students for exams and even to conduct exams. It’s a sad fact of Singapore life.

Just as disturbing was a letter a young man wrote to the Straits Times forum yesterday, Why Primary 1 exams are necessary. The writer, Sean, said that parents are to blame. But I think that he was equally culpable since he supported exams.

[Click to see larger version]

There are a few ways to respond at this point. One is, “What is wrong with exams?” and another is “Sean does not know any better, so give him a break”.

So what is wrong with exams as we currently know them? Nothing, if you were tested in life exactly like those exams. Nothing, if what you knew only in your head sufficed in life. Nothing, if the joy of learning weren’t drained out of you as if it were poison. Nothing, if a few hours frantically scribbling at a table did not result in a few letters that labelled you a success or failure regardless of your character, drive or other abilities. Nothing is wrong with exams if they did not create an addiction to high stakes testing.

I’m tempted to give Sean a break. As a pawn of the system, he is unlikely to know any better. If you are a frog born at the bottom of a dark well, you know not how other frogs live. But Sean, his peers, their parents and teachers have a choice if they bother to look and change. Unfortunately, they are all addicted to exams.

The demand for exams is created by policy makers, administrators and bean counters. They are so convincing that teachers not only design the exams, they also feed the exam machinery. Exams grip students and parents by fear and they live by that fear. These are our exam drug lords, unwitting peddlers and helpless addicts.

Another response to my rant might be, “You and I were a result of our exam system, but look how well we turned out!” To that I say: We probably did well not because of the system, but despite of it. Think about it.

I’ll state the obvious:

  1. Assessment is a key leverage point for educational change.
  2. Our teachers teach to the test because they are pressured to.
  3. If our modes and methods of assessment do not change, very little else will.

High stakes exams are designed to sort just like quality control in a factory. Exams are a legacy of the Industrial Age. Is there are time and place for tests and exams? Maybe. But not all the time and in every classroom. The folks at Harvard (thanks for the link, Steve!) are discovering this for various reasons.

Now if the winds of change blow new ideas our way, how will we respond? If we choose to remain addicted, not well.

But I detect gentle breezes that we casually label alternative assessments. These alternatives include meaningful portfolios, performances and projects.

I do not think that they should be alternatives like substitutes on a football bench are alternatives. These alternatives get little or no playing time in the real game. These alternatives are young and inexperienced. I will do what I can to see many of these alternatives become mainstream while turning exams into alternatives. After all, the exam player is getting old and has tested positive for drugs.

Straits Times online featured this article on gaming:


I guess only negative or sensationalistic headlines grab eyeballs. Youth are “stuck” (as in addicted or immobile) and this “raises fears”. This isn’t news, it’s olds. The layperson already has this perception and ST is telling them what they want to read or hear.

If ST really wanted to report the news, report it when the results have been properly analyzed. Or link it to opportunities such as Singapore’s game development, participation in cyber competitions or educational gaming. These highlight Singapore’s reputation and savvy as well as the educational ground we can break in this area.

ST highlights fears but I am already aware of them. Folks at this forum are livid about the article. I see opportunities and pursue them instead. The layperson might see 27 hours a week wasted on gaming. I see 27 hours of informal and meaningful learning initiated by the learner!

BTW, I only have access to the digital copy above and don’t have the full article. I neither subscribe to ST online (cough, ripoff, cough) nor a paper copy (a waste of resources). The NIE library has “lost” yesterday’s newspaper too. I’d appreciate a copy of the full article if anyone has it.


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