Can smartphones/etc cause genuine “addiction”?

This is a question I’m often asked. There is no single answer to this but I have just come across a very useful and balanced response in Gaming, ‘Selfitis’ And Social Media: Are These Virtual Addictions Real? by Alice Walton in Forbes.

Three things I’d add:

  1. A good definition of “addiction” is a state in which a person carries out compulsive behaviour despite the negative effects and even when trying to stop or reduce the behaviour. By this definition, many of us would consider ourselves to have an addictive relationship with our social media or internet use.
  2. A neurotransmitter critical in addiction is dopamine, which is the chemical active in the “reward system”, triggered when we are drawn to repeat something that has given us pleasure previously. Actions like opening our phone to look at our social media accounts or those moments when we hear the ping of an incoming message have that same pleasure effect, that same reward mechanism.
  3. Even if – and you’ll see from the article that it is by no means certain – these things can be categorised as genuinely addictive (because there are some differences in the mechanisms triggered by each “addictive” substance or behaviour) this does not mean that they are as difficult to control as familiar addictive substances such as cocaine or nicotine. There’s evidence that withdrawal and cure are much easier. We are not introducing chemicals into our body when we go online – dopamine is already there and very necessary it is, too!

In many ways, the original question is irrelevant. What we know is that many of us do spend more time than we want to on our devices. We can see some of the downsides and many of us – including many young people – would like to cut back. Including, interestingly, the silicon valley people who sell us the devices in the first place…

That should be the starting point for most of us. The terminology is merely academic.

Except for one thing: if we are talking about addiction-like properties, then we can learn from addiction treatments when we create our own methods for reducing use: want to change, remove temptation, reward non-use, distract, acknowledge benefit, seek different pleasures, set manageable goals.

See my resources section for Tips for Healthy Screentime.

 

 

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2 Responses

    1. Hi Sally. There are lots of examples I didn’t mention! Porn is another one. That’s the nature of illustrative examples: they aren’t intended to be a comprehensive list. My article (and area of knowledge) is about compulsive behaviour in general and using smartphones etc specifically, not any of the other things one can do compulsively/addictively. I’m not sure what kind of comment I can offer about gambling, which I don’t know much specific about, other than that the same reward systems are activated (which was the point in the article.)

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