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.
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.
The words we use to describe our behaviors matter. While mental health professionals must offer resources for those with 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.
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.