Technology Addiction

How many times do you check your phone each day?

Do you get a little buzz of feel-goods whenever you receive a colourful little message?

Do you crave that next hit?

In this video, Andrew Przybylski, a professor of experimental psychology at the Oxford Internet Institute, talks about the use of the word ‘addiction’ to connote our increasing use of technology and whether it has any justification.

The Digital Addiction Myth

Przybylski implies that there isn’t yet a solid scientific basis to associate the word ‘addiction’ with our penchant for technology.

Rather, it’s a cultural zeitgeist, fed by its own fears.

I’m sure I’ve been at fault myself – trivialising addiction in relation to ‘potentially’ benign forms of immersive experience.

Przybylski says that, unlike addiction to drugs and alcohol, brain scans show that neurochemical rewards for using technology fall within a much narrower band, more akin to stimuli like sex and sugar.

He adds that the data we have on the issue is far from definitive, many studies suffering from a common issue of correlation vs causation.

i.e. Does using technology cause issues or are people with pre-existing issues more prone to overusing technology?

The available research, he says, has also become a victim of its own success, spawning a cottage industry of celebrity scientists and talk show experts espousing their views, while simultaneously cashing in by treating people for the very problems they promote.

Indeed, says Przybylski, it’s not that the fear surrounding trends like technology is a new phenomenon; it’s simply replaced other forms of societal angst. 

We once worried about possible negative effects of board games like dungeons and dragons on our children, through collective overstimulation of their imagination.

Then it was the media hype surrounding rap music and computer games, said to instil a culture of violence in adolescents.

[I’m not sure the fear around computer games and rap music has fully subsided, but I take his point.]

It’s not that empirical evidence has emerged to assuage such fears either, he says, but rather that our anxieties have found a new focus, in tech.

Why is this happening? 

Przybylski doesn’t say as much in the video, but in my humble opinion, sweeping societal trends trigger alarm because humans find change difficult, at least initially.

While it’s true to say that we’re a hugely adaptable species, we tend to cling to our old ways, unwilling to shed existing beliefs and behaviours.

After all, scanning new developments for potential pitfalls and threats is inbuilt and core to our very survival, so the very fact that we’re asking the question about the negative effects of tech is a good thing.

So, is technology truly addictive, or just another focus of human unrest and angst that will fade in the wake of further progress?