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Technology Addiction: A 21st-Century Malady

Chris is 21 years old and lives with his parents. He hasn't left the house for six months and spends all day playing online games. The only people he interacts with in person are his mum and dad, who provide for his basic needs. He sees no other human being but has what he considers to be a rich social relationship with dozens of other gamers around the world.

Bart is 20, a mathematics undergraduate. When not in lectures he's always in his room, playing online games. During the holidays he can be found in his mother's apartment... playing online games. He rarely leaves the computer, spending up to 20 hours a day online.

Although their names have been changed, these are real people. And it's not just a male thing. Gone are the days when women had no 'female-friendly' computer games to play. App games such as Candy Crush Saga and various Flappy Bird-style clones are played obsessively by more women than men. Even young children are caught in this net, with kids as young as two being diagnosed as addicted to tablets and other forms of consumer technology.

But are they really? Addiction can be defined as the continued repetition of a behaviour despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviours. Is that what's happening here? Are all these people really addicted to technology, or have some of them simply made a rational choice? Are their virtual environments now so refined and fulfilling that they're preferable to the real world, with all its trials, tribulations and – particularly for younger generations – economic woes and inequalities?

There's no easy answer to this question, but there are some clues. New Scientist magazine looked into the issue of gaming addiction earlier this year (issue 2971, 29 May 2014, p.38), and pointed out the clever design features of games such as Candy Crush Saga: the lights, the colours, the timing of rewards and the way these all play to the brain's 'lucid loop' state. These games tap right into the brain's reward system, putting players in a state analogous to 'flow', a feeling of living in the moment. That's a big emotional hit, normally only available to young children, people who meditate and those who thoroughly enjoy their work or hobbies.

In 2013, internet gaming addiction became a recognised disorder in the DSM-5, the 'bible' of psychiatry in the US. But gamers aren't the only ones affected. Almost anyone can indulge in technology-focused behaviour that looks addictive from the outside, whether it's refreshing their email in-box every minute, spending hours on Facebook or relentlessly checking Twitter to avoid missing an update. The acronym 'FOMO' wasn't created specifically for this type of repetitive behaviour, but Fear Of Missing Out (on friends' news, business opportunities, world events) is partly what drives it.

Our brains have evolved in such a way that receiving new social information is strongly rewarded. In a world of instantaneous communication, such information now arrives every second, not just every few weeks as it might once have done. Most of it is trivial and irrelevant to us, but the occasional gem rewards our sociable minds with a rich dose of satisfaction from our serotonin and dopamine systems.

It's not addiction in the physiological sense: direct chemical stimulation and substitution of the brain's neurotransmitters, leading to physical pain, craving and other symptoms on withdrawal. This isn't heroin or crack cocaine. But there are good grounds for labelling the compulsive, repetitive use of technology as addictive behaviour in a psychological sense.

The rewards for the brain are so high that affected people will undertake potentially damaging behaviour – such as going without sleep, food, exercise and conventional social stimulation, or paying money to stay in a game – in order to achieve them. For office workers, the ceaseless checking and updating of email, social media and news feeds can be a distraction from the 'big picture' of their defined careers or business roles, leading them to lose focus on their work. Jobs have doubtless been lost through this type of addiction. Relationships certainly have.

The problem of technology addiction isn't widely acknowledged, though there are some interesting books on the subject. Perhaps that's because technology has such strong and tangible benefits for its users that the idea of 'too much' tech use makes no sense to most of us. But while games developers and programmers might have only hit on the lucid loop by accident (even Candy Crush Saga's developers have had trouble repeating their initial success), soon it'll be incorporated by design.

Psychology is telling us a great deal about the way our brains respond to technological stimuli, and that knowledge is only likely to increase. With brain imaging now being used to test the potential impact of marketing campaigns, it won't be long before the finest minds in psychology and programming are teaming up to create games and social applications that many people will find almost impossible to stop playing or using. They've probably already started.

Here are 10 clues that you might be addicted to technology:

1. Your phone hasn't left your side for months.

2. You start to feel anxious long before the low battery warning appears.

3. You check email/Facebook/Twitter more than once an hour.

4. You've never met most of your friends in person.

5. You can't remember the last time you spent a whole day without seeing a screen.

6. You avoid going anywhere that doesn't have a good 4G or wi-fi signal.

7. Events in the 'real' world can seem distant and meaningless.

8. You've ducked out of social events to catch up with your online life.

9. You've gone without food or sleep while absorbed in a game or other online activity.

10. You'd rather lose an arm or a close relative than your internet connection.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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