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Tech-Addiction: Individual Struggle or Social Crisis?
Technology is hurting us in more ways than we know. But what can we do?
Digital technology has permanently, yet unconsciously changed the way individuals, and societies function. It now either drives or supports almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives, from how we exercise to how we work. We use applications for prayers, meditation, reading, and planning. Areas of life that were once technology-free are now digitized for greater optimization and efficiency.
Binary code. Christiaan Colen/Flickr.
The implications of this technological revolution have been both positive and negative. Our tendency to see progress as an essentially unalloyed good often leads us to overlook the challenges our innovations create. Digital addiction—the excessive and compulsive use of digital devices—is a prevalent challenge that affects people of all ages. Over 3.8 billion people use social media every day; people spend on average 2.5 hours on the internet daily—more time than they do watching TV. Understanding this problem can not only help individuals regain control over their lives, but also begin to address many social problems, including skyrocketing mental health crises, a decrease in the number of fulfilling human relationships people have, loss of productivity, and existing digital divides.
Addiction is a combination of two factors: habit formation—“today’s consumption increases tomorrow’s demand”—and self-control problems, meaning that one consumes more today than he would have otherwise chosen to in advance. These are the two key forces that define addiction for classical addictive goods such as cigarettes or alcohol. In a recent study of digital addiction, researchers discovered that while digital technologies provide important individual and societal benefits, they can be addictive and harmful, mostly because they create self-control problems and lead to negative habit formation. Moreover, people are largely unaware that they are forming these habits and self-control problems.
Which pill will you take? Philip Taylor/PTMoney.com/Flickr.
So how prevalent is digital addiction? Smartphone addiction is the most obvious and widespread. It is associated with constant notifications from addictive apps, which lead individuals to check their phones constantly and become reliant on them for social interaction and entertainment. Social media addiction is associated with the dopamine hit that comes from constant validation through likes, comments, and followers, which in effect leads people to spend excessive time on these platforms. Modern, highly immersive video games combined with the thrill that comes from achieving in-game rewards and recognition, can lead to neglecting real-world responsibilities and relationships. Internet-use disorder encompasses various online activities, such as excessive web browsing, streaming, or compulsive online shopping. Pornography addiction from easy access to explicit content harms relationships and mental well-being. Finally, the fear of missing out (FOMO) on exciting experiences shared on social media can drive people to stay continuously online.
These digital addictions have habit forming effects that undermine self-control and lead to social challenges. Excessive screen time and the sedentary behaviors associated with digital addiction often contribute to physical health problems such as obesity, repetitive strain injuries, and sleep disorders, along with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation. Comparing oneself to curated online personas creates unrealistic expectations and decreases self-esteem. Some digital addictions—pornography, excessive video game use, etc.—can strain personal relationships, as individuals may prioritize online interactions over real-life connections. From the economic perspective, digital addiction leads to decreased productivity and focus, which disrupts workflow and hinders learning opportunities. Many teens and younger children struggle with cyberbullying and online harassment. These new phenomena have severe social consequences that can lead to suicide and record high depression levels. The increase of activity in online spaces often leaves people vulnerable to data theft, identity theft, and cyberattacks, which have real financial consequences. Finally, the use of smartphones in cars has massively increased incidences of distracted driving, which poses significant risk to public safety. By seeing the dangers digital addiction poses on society, it is possible to think about ways to address this phenomena.
Living on the web. Foquier/Flickr.
Addressing digital addiction requires a multifaceted approach that combines awareness, self-regulation, and societal change. Individuals can take charge of their digital habits by setting clear boundaries and priorities for their time and engaging in offline activities. Cultivating physical human interactions not only balances one’s digital presence, but also leads to happier and more fulfilled lives. It is also important to be mindful about the screen time. By using the available app-usage trackers and app limits, individuals can monitor their use of digital technology and even choose to designate tech-free times. At the social level, education is everything. Open conversations within families, at schools and in the workplaces can raise awareness about the dangers excessive technology use poses. On a social level, cultivating environments that encourage face-to-face interactions helps individuals disengage from the virtual world. Finally, a full-spectrum effort involving personal responsibility, policy changes, and fostering healthier tech culture, can pave the way towards effectively addressing digital addiction in our society.