Part 1 of a 2 part series.
Responding to the advent of a new technology, the Swiss scientist Conrad Gesser both lamented and warned that the end product would “overwhelm people and be harmful to the mind.”
The year was 1565 and the technology was the printing press. The product in question? The book.
This warning bell has accompanied the advent of every major, and sometimes minor, advancement in human history. It’s almost a certainty that when the fork was invented, there were those who cautioned the arrival of a gluttonous age that would spread obesity across the globe. And so, the alarms that are going off as the social media age moves into the mainstream — with a predicted 2.5 billion users — have a familiar ring to them. For some, the cautionary tones do not represent a reflexive resistance to anything new and novel, but the introduction of a dangerous, habit-forming experience with all the destructive power of a full-blown substance addiction.
Proponents of the Internet age counter that social media is often used to benefit people by deepening existing personal relationships, increasing access to information and building communities. Meanwhile, growing research points out that social media addiction (SMA) comes with all the behavioral signals usually associated with chemical addictions — such as smoking or alcoholism — including mood changes, social withdrawal, attempts to abstain and relapse.
The variance in the research, and even greater disparity in public opinion, as to whether or not SMA is a real disorder is due, in large part, to the way our culture looks at addictions of any kind. There are many who still reject the disease model of chemical addiction and see morality and lack of willpower as prime movers for the development and continuation of life-destroying habits. For some, the concept that a behavior — i.e. gambling, shopping or use of the Internet — can become an addiction resides either in the realm of the attempt to shift responsibility for life choices, or is another reactionary fear of the unknown.
Despite great leaps in our understanding about addictions, the scientific jury is still out on the nature/nurture issue. It’s easy to get lost in the causal loop of whether one becomes an addict by engaging in addictive experiences, or whether addictive personalities seek out habit-forming activities. In his book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” author Adam Alter offers a sensible balance when he suggests that behavioral addictions are the result of “environment plus circumstance.” Reviewing both historical studies and current research on the nature of addicts and their addictions, he concludes that given the right conditions, certain behaviors will trigger the “inner-addict” in all of us.
Alter contends that it is not a genetic predisposition, or weak will, that leads to SMA, but the very habit-forming feedback system inherent in high-tech social connecting that hooks us. Addictive technology, he points out, uses the following mechanisms to activate the same brain regions as drug addiction:
Having goals beyond reach Unpredictable positive feedback Incremental progress The addition of more difficult tasks over time Unresolved tensions demanding resolution Strong social connections
This raises the “So what’s wrong with that?” question for advocates, while others see the inevitable trap that most addicts fall into — using the behavior to cope with a negative mood state.
When the use of any behavior no longer seeks to provide pleasure, but instead to ward off pain, the chain of events follows the similar path of chemical addiction. This downward spiral begins as one needs to escalate the behavior to get the desired effect, other coping mechanisms are ignored, the over-engagement in the behavior causes a sense of shame and guilt, and use continues despite negative consequences. This is neatly summed up by the phrase “all addictions begin with pain and end in pain.”
Research into social media addiction illuminates parallels in the behavior of chemical addicts that are hard to ignore. Common patterns include:
Spending more and more time on your social media pages. Thinking about your social media sites when not online. Feeling an overwhelming need to share something on your Facebook or other social media page. Getting anxious or stressed out if you have not been able to get online for a certain amount of time. Trying to cut back on social media usage.
This should not be confused with the anxiety most of us feel when we misplace our smartphone or the Pavlovian-like response we have when hearing our email alert. These behavioral responses represent the hallmark of all addictions and, after enough repetition, have been demonstrated to create strong neural connections in the brain.
Both the medical and psychological communities are taking note of SMA. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the number of people who spend 20 or more hours per week on the Internet has doubled between 2008 and 2015 — to 43 million Americans. While the APA does not have a formal medical diagnosis for Internet addiction, its latest manual has designated it as a disorder in need of more study.
There are those who will continue to see SMA as yet another modern-age syndrome destined to fall into the category of “What was all the fuss about?” Others, particularly parents whose teenagers are trading in personal relationships for digital contact and those who feel their social media use has become unmanageable, will surely need more than the typical dismissal or castigation often faced by those struggling with addictions.