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Are We Addicted to Technology?

By Logan Kugler

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 63 No. 8, Pages 15-16
10.1145/3403966

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It's easy to think the world is suffering from full-blown technology addiction.

We read daily headlines about how social media platforms threaten our mental health, our relationships, and even democratic society itself. We hear smartphone addiction is the latest scourge sweeping the nation's youth, and we even see tech leaders like Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook, publicly call for the break-up of the firm he created because of its addictive content and features.

It certainly seems like "technology addiction" is a real condition and that it is everywhere. But the truth is a little less black and white.

Technology addiction is a broad term that isn't always well defined. It can mean any type of negative behavior across video gaming, smartphone usage, and use of social media platforms like Facebook. It is medically unclear if these negative behaviors are actually addictive, and it is difficult to tell if these behaviors are due to the way the technology in question works or because we have a hard time controlling our own use of individual technologies.

Video game addiction was added by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 to its International Classification of Diseases, which the organization describes as the international standard for disease reporting. The move was welcomed by some who see video game addiction as a real disease, but it was contested by others who argued that video game addictions—and other types of technology addiction—do not meet clinical standards of addiction.

While everybody seems to agree video gaming in excess can cause harm, there is less consensus on whether or not smartphones and consumer technology have negative effects on our behavior and, if so, how to classify these effects.

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Bad Habit or Actual Addiction?

WHO says video game addiction occurs when gaming interferes with life, and the individual is unable to stop gaming despite this interference. It also says this severity of behavior must occur for a year or more to classify as an addiction.

Clearly, some people experience real physical and mental harm from overusing video games.

"For gamers who struggle with video game addiction, it's a real condition that impacts many areas of life, including school, employment, mental and physical health, and relationships," says Cam Adair, founder of Game Quitters, a video game addiction support group. Adair describes himself as a video game addict who was hooked for 10 years, playing up to 16 hours a day, until the habit caused problems in his life, including forcing him to drop out of school. Today, he speaks and writes about his recovery, and helps other video game addicts kick the habit. He sees validation for video game addiction as a harmful condition worth treating in the 75,000 people in 95 countries looking for help on Game Quitters every month.

Adair sees clear negative effects from excessive video gaming every day in the people he helps. Extreme video game addicts, he says, may neglect to eat, sleep, or to perform work or school duties. "The most common case I see is a college student, usually male, who is now beginning to fail school and can't seem to get themselves away from games," says Adair.

In Adair's view, video games themselves cause some of these problems. Some sufferers find the perception of achievement within games so addictive that they stop pursuing goals in the real world. In other scenarios, he says, the technology may be used as a distraction from actual depression or anxiety. In either case, the effects of excessive video gaming on lives are very real.

"Struggling gamers are losing their jobs, failing school, and getting divorced. The real-life impact is significant and can be devastating," he says.

Not everyone agrees that the negative effects of video gaming should be clinically labeled as an addiction.

Mental health researchers, led by psychologist Andrew Przybylski, publicly contested WHO's classification. Przybylski, an associate professor, senior research fellow, and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute of the University of Oxford, says WHO relies too heavily on research into gambling behaviors, which are addictive, and has not reached a consensus on the symptoms of video game overuse.

There is even less agreement about the negative effects around smartphones and other consumer technology platforms.

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Digital Tools, Physical Effects

While WHO has formally recognized video game addiction, it has not recognized addictions related to smartphone use or to other consumer technologies. Neither has the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the U.S. 'bible' of psychological conditions.

However, one 2016 study led by Suliman Aljomaa of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia and published in Computers in Human Behavior found that, among undergraduate university students surveyed, the smartphone "addiction percentage among participants was 48%." However, the degree of addiction differed based on factors like gender and social status.

Another study, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, found problematic smartphone usage was associated with increased anxiety and depression in children and young people, although these symptoms were self-reported.

Other researchers say studies such as these are flawed.

In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, Tayana Panova and Xavier Carbonell surveyed a range of literature that claimed smartphones were addictive. The researchers cite addiction's clinical symptoms as "mood modification, tolerance, salience, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse." However, they found much of the literature relied on self-reported results and inconsistent questions to determine if a clinical addiction was present.

Panova and Carbonell concluded problematic smartphone use is "an evolving public health concern that requires greater study to determine the boundary between helpful and harmful technology use." However, they said, excessive smartphone use doesn't merit the term "addiction."

Przybylski, the psychologist who contested WHO's classification of video games as an addiction, echoes this view. He says we aren't even thinking about the problems posed by technology properly yet. The potential negative effects of technology deserve serious consideration, conversation, and study, he says, but that is not what is happening now. "I'm certain that the world would be a better place if we deleted most of the existing research [on technology addiction] and started anew with open, transparent, and reproducible science."

Przybylski would like to see independent scientists investigating technology addiction show their work using robust methods, as well as soliciting participation from video game, technology, and social media companies in their studies. "It's pretty clear that there may be something going on, but it is not clear that technology is to blame," he says. "The current literature is a bit like blaming a runny nose for the flu."

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What the Doctors Order?

Despite the debate, excessive video gaming's negative effects are severe enough to merit prescriptive solutions.

Game Quitters offers educational programs for gamers, parents, and medical professionals. Traditional therapy and residential programs for gaming addicts exist, too, including some run by the U.K. National Health Service. Adair says these are still being developed, and they can be expensive, with private residential treatments running $10,000 or more per month. "That's one reason why I believe it's essential that free or affordable solutions are developed and provided for people struggling," says Adair. "If someone has a video game addiction, cost should not be a barrier for them to receive help."

Yet the "solution" to excessive smartphone and technology use, if needed at all, is unclear.

Behavioral scientist Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, argues often and vocally that technology is not addictive. Eyal also has written about how to use technology responsibly, in his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. In both books, Eyal argues that technology use or abuse is up to the user. He recommends individuals assess how they spend their time at a granular level, to better understand what distracts them and why.

Others argue we need to address technology's negative effects by taking back power from the massive technology companies that make smartphones, software, and platforms.

Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager who now runs the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology, which is dedicated to realigning people's relationships with massive technology companies, argues firms like Apple, Facebook, and Google engineer products to capture maximum attention, since their business models rely on active users and captive audiences for advertising. Because of this, popular technology tools and platforms direct our behavior in ways we can't always control.

The Center for Humane Technology pushes for societal change through writing, speaking, and lobbying policy makers for greater oversight over tech companies.

At the end of the day, people like Adair are not sure it even matters if excessive technology usage is classified as an addiction, or who is to blame. With extreme gaming behavior, says Adair, the effects are real no matter what you call it or at whom you point fingers. "While professionals may debate the merits of a video game addiction diagnosis, the gamer themselves is actively struggling."

* Further Reading

Aljomaa, S.,
Smartphone addiction among university students in the light of some variables, Computers in Human Behavior, Aug. 2016, http://bit.ly/2xf0VHh

Eyal, N.,
Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, November 2014, https://amzn.to/2TFBYvZ

Panova, T. and Carbonell, X.,
Is smartphone addiction really an addiction?, National Center for Biotechnology Information, Jun. 12, 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6174603

Sohn, S., Rees, P., Wildridge, B, Kalk, N., and Carter, B.,
Prevalence of problematic smartphone usage and associated mental health outcomes amongst children and young people: a systematic review, meta-analysis and GRADE of the evidence, BMC Psychiatry, November 29, 2019, http://bit.ly/31SmNDF

Thompson, N.,
Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them, WIRED, Jul. 26, 2017, http://bit.ly/3azwCcJ

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Author

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL, USA. He has written for over 60 major publications.


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