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Is technology addiction a myth? (new video-short and Twitter debate)

Are you addicted to your tech? Can you be addicted to tech?

You’ve no doubt seen the case for tech addiction (in these video shorts), but here’s a three-minute BBC video for the case against tech addiction – from Professor Andrew Przybylski who is the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute (see below video for full transcript).

So, what do you think?

Come and share your view in a Twitter debate next Thursday (28 November) at 7pm GMT, when the cyberpsychology section of the British Psychological Society (BPS) (@BPSCyberSection) will be hosting a Twitter debate on technology addiction ( #CyberSectionChat).

Transcript: Is technology addiction a myth?

My name is Professor Andrew Przybylski and in my humble opinion technology addiction is a myth.

Casual use of the term addition has the very real effect of potentially trivialising how we talk about addiction more broadly

We might say a popular game, app or streaming series is addictive, but what do we really mean when we use that word?

Are we seriously equating this kind of behavioural with a problem with drink or taking drugs?

What we really mean is that the activity is fun, it’s engaging, it’s immersive and it’s enjoyable.

We know the amount of dopamine that’s released with you do something like have sex, eat food, or play video games is kind of in a pretty narrow band, but taking drugs like cocaine, ecstasy or amphetamines has a much larger impact.

Something that not many people know is that technology addiction itself, started as a bit of a practical joke.

In the mid-1990s, the American psychiatrist Dr Ivan Goldberg grew frustrated with how psychiatry was medicalising everyday life.

He wanted to use the internet as an example; he took symptoms from gambling disorder and substance abuse and he pushed them together to kind of illustrate how silly the maladisation of everyday life had become.

Here we are 20 years later, talking about video game addiction, internet addiction and smartphone addiction as if they’re their real own things along with checklists, acronyms and media headlines.

Though headlines might seem very sure about the addictive potential of technology, the actual research itself is a bit of a mess.

We’re not really sure if technology might cause problems in people’s lives, or if those who already have problems in their lives gravitate towards using technology in less healthy ways.

One of the most worrying things is – because there isn’t a lot of good evidence in hand – there are a lot of people trying to sell the general public on some big ideas.

At the very least, this means that people are selling books, they’re going on chat shows, they kind of being influencers.

But at the worst, it means that some people are taking advantage. They’re running for-profit clinics, they’re using methods of treatment that haven’t been either standardised or validated or shown to help people.

In some cases, we have people who are running clinics, publishing research on technology addiction and not disclosing that they themselves are profiting directly from treating technology addiction.

What’s currently missing from the debate and the worries about technology addiction is a historical perspective.

In the 1980s, we were very worried about Dungeons and Dragons, playing role-playing games that involved young people’s imaginations. We were worried that they would lose connection with the real world, that they would engage in Satanic rituals.

Then in the late-80s and early-90s, we became very worried about rap music and violent video games, we thought that maybe they changed young people, drove them to commit violent acts.

We didn’t stop worrying about rap music, Dungeons and Dragons or video games because of new empirical evidence. We stopped worrying about them because our anxiety shifted from those fields, from those topics, to things like the internet and online games.

So as scientists, as psychologists and researchers, we need to ask ourselves, is there really something special about technology? Or is this a new panic we have to grapple with?

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

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  • ad·dic·tion
    the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.
    Screen addiction is formed using the same baseline as many popular drugs such as heroine, cocaine and others. By triggering our dopamine neurotransmitters, it activates our brains rewards system, which is hard wired to seek out the activities that activate it. This system from an evolutionary standpoint exists to motivate us to survive. By rewarding us with pleasure when engaging in activities such as hunting, eating and drinking water. Funnily enough, our brains can’t tell the difference between dopamine given while eating, and dopamine given when receiving likes and comments on social media. This dopamine can hard wire the activities of using social media into our brains so that we can indeed, get addicted.
    Another thing, Mid-1990s, games did not have the same addictive properties as they do now, neither was there social media. These 2 things are some of the biggest ways in which screen addictions form today. Historical perspectives cannot apply to such things as today. Did dungeons and dragons lead to higher depression rates in addicted teens? Did rap cause those who listen to it very frequently to be more socially isolated, or feel lesser of themselves? Because these are all things that technology today can and is causing.
    Just my humble opinion though.

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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.