There’s a fine line between addiction and obsession. Addiction is a disease that lasts a lifetime; obsession is an overwhelming desire that leads one to distraction, to the exclusion of all else. As I watch the world evolve around me, I see people recklessly Tweeting and driving, breaking off relationships via What’s App, and spending more time at a dinner table surfing Facebook than they do enjoying the company of the person directly in front of them. Given all the attention paid to the virtual world, with my fellow human beings walking around zombie-like, smart phones glued to their hands commanding all their attention, I can’t help but wonder whether we’re all engaged in one giant mass addiction that will impact society for generations.
Addiction is commonly associated with drug or alcohol abuse, gambling, smoking over-eating and even sex. However, regardless of how it manifests, they all stem from the same inner-workings of our brains. It has been determined that both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ play key roles in determining if someone will become an addict. If a person has one parent who is an addict, there’s an estimated 40% chance that she too will become an addict. That rate almost doubles if both parents are addicted. Yet, if someone born at greater risk of addiction is not exposed to the stimuli then the addiction with not arise. This is particularly born out by an NCASA study at Columbia University, published in 2011, demonstrating that if someone begins using drugs or alcohol prior to the age of 18, they have a 25% chance of becoming an addict as an adult. However, if use does not begin until after 21, that percentage drops to 4%. Since practically the entire world is exposed to smart phones from a young age nowadays, this study would seem to argue for a broad potential social media surge of addiction on each and every main street. But let’s delve further.
The brain is made up of approximately 86 billion nerve cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters are inhibitory, making it less likely that the receiving neuron will carry out some action. Others are excitatory, priming them to send signals to other neurons, inducing an action. The cycle of addiction disrupts the normal functions of some of these networks.
The brain’s neural networks favor pleasurable experiences over non-pleasurable experiences. This is generally controlled through the distribution of dopamine, serotonin and other brain chemicals. Under normal circumstances, this serves us well, allowing us to enjoy such things as great food, sex and love. However, in an addicted brain, this chemical distribution gets thrown out of whack. Studies using PET scans and MRIs showing brain activity in both addicts and non-addicts, demonstrate a clear distinction in how they function. Brains of addicts become so impacted by the disease that they sense diminished enjoyment in things that would otherwise routinely be pleasurable, the brain simply wants more of what it is addicted to. Moreover, when an addict is not engaged in the addictive behavior, feelings of stress trigger norepinephrine, dynorphin and corticotropin, further nurturing the pull of the addictive behavior. It not only feels good while you are doing it, it also feels bad when you are not. In fact, recent studies have even shown similarities between the addicted brain and people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, further highlighting the critical nature of the disease.
Finally, addiction is not only affected by the physical mechanics of the brain, but also by psychological factors. When someone is deprived of whatever is fueling his or her addiction, it triggers physical cravings or urges to engage in that behavior, as indicated above. However, that’s only the half of it. Addicts are also haunted by the specter of something called ‘euphoric recall’. They remember how much fun they had while engaged in the activity. How many times have you felt a phantom buzzing on your leg or in your purse and assumed it was your cell phone? Well, you’re not alone. Using Social Media gives many people the pleasurable experience of connecting with the world and feeling validated. This euphoric recall increases your use of this medium and is yet another key factor to be considered in this debate.
This issue is more than merely academic. Researchers at the London School of Economics found that when students were banned from having cell phones at 91 schools, those 130,000 students exhibited a 6.41% increase in academic performance. Students previously identified as underachievers notched a 14.23% increase. Whether it’s an addiction or simply an obsession, it clearly has an impact on our day-to-day lives.
Which brings us back to the main question – does our national obsession with social media and smart phones rise to the level of addiction? Based on all the factors listed above, I think it’s clear that most people would not meet the clinical criteria for addiction. However, considering the general prevalence of addiction and cross-addiction in society, and the general topic of this magazine and its readership, I would guess that a number of you reading this article might just qualify. But, please understand, that’s no reason to panic. Certain cross-addictions can actually be healthy (such as exercise), particularly if they help to avoid other, more problematic addictions, and are not ‘all-consuming’. The only way to get at the heart of the issue is through honest introspection. So, I politely suggest we consider our own personal social media habits and behaviors and conduct a personal account. Are our virtual lives materially and negatively affecting our real ones? If the answer is “no”, then great! However, if the answer is “yes”, then it might be time to do something about that and support groups abound (paradigmmalibu.com, crchealth.com, addiction.com). As with all things addiction, it’s best to get out ahead of the issue before it becomes a problem.
For additional information on this perspective, please Google the article: Technology Addiction: Are we Raising a New Generation of Addicts, by Lisa Strohm, JD, PhD.