Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Gateway Drug

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Reconciling our on-again, off-again relationship with technology



By Nayantara Bhat | All too often in the middle of a social gathering, people will start to check their phones one-by-one, succumbing to the allure of their glowing screens like dominos. Relaxed evenings with friends frequently turn into a cycle of scrolling through Instagram feeds and not much else.


These curious changes in the way we interact could be a cultural byproduct of digitization, or the result of a bigger problem: society’s collective addiction to technology, and our relentless need to be connected.


Technology has made many a teenager targets of the disparaging ‘kids these days’ comment. Despite the scoffing, our relationship with tech and the internet is largely murky. While studies showing a link between internet use and depression have enjoyed the spotlight in the past few years, others find that it decreases loneliness. But with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring gaming to be a bonafide addiction and companies like Apple introducing apps to control screen time, tech use is rapidly becoming a real worry for families and scientists.


A 2016 study conducted by Hong Kong Polytechnic University professors Daniel Shek and Lu Yu found that adolescents in Hong Kong experienced an overall decline in their quality of life with greater levels of tech usage.


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“For those who are more internet addicted, their life satisfaction is lower, and their sense of hopelessness is higher,” says Shek. He adds that these internet-addicted adolescents often experience problems with their schoolwork or families as a partial consequence of the habit, and that tech addiction often came hand-in-hand with other high-risk adolescent behaviors like substance abuse.


Tech addiction can be tricky to define, much less treat. The Cabin, a rehabilitation treatment center in Chiang Mai, looks for and treats ‘cyber addiction’–an umbrella term for everything from gaming to pornography addiction.


Brian Russman, Deputy Chief Clinical Officer at The Cabin, says that the same characteristics of other addictions play out in a case of cyber addiction–the key being the buildup of tolerance. Each time a person indulges, they need more of the substance to get the same dopamine hit. Adolescents are particularly susceptible, although he notes that this holds for any addictive disorder.


The Cabin treated cyber addiction as a secondary issue for years, but the past five years saw an abrupt boom in cases of primary tech addiction. Russman attributes this increase to the internet’s accessibility, which led them to introduce a standalone treatment program.


For most adults, the prospect of becoming addicted to tech isn’t incredibly worrying. Usage can sometimes get out of hand, but it’s generally short-term (say, when you’re binge-watching Orange is the New Black).


What they don’t realize is that their rabbit hole of unproductivity results from an intentional tactic used by platforms to lure their users into a binge. Projects like the Time Well Spent Movement, spearheaded by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, have brought the attention economy’s influence to light.


The attention economy engineers tech that keeps users hooked. Content and social media platforms thrive on users who make a habit of glancing at their screens and skimming through their feeds, designing their products in such a way that makes it hard to resist a peek at regular intervals.


For all those times when watching one YouTube video turns into watching three hours’ worth, Harris has an explanation. “You didn’t realize you had a supercomputer pointed at your brain,” he said in an interview with WIRED, referring to Google’s substantial computing power.


In short, lack of self-control isn’t entirely to blame for rising levels of tech addiction. The way Russman sees it, technological progress has historically been a catalyst for addiction.


“Technologies always advance addiction, from the time we invented the syringe and saw a huge upswing in morphine addiction, to the time we changed powdered cocaine into smokable cocaine, and saw a crack epidemic hit the United States,” he says. “Technological innovations are also driving this incredible upswing in addiction.”

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To combat substance addictions, it’s often the case that going cold turkey works best. However, technology has wormed its way into almost every aspect of daily life, and no two people use it in the same way. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to step away from its omnipresent influence on recreational activities, work life, and even personal care and health.


When explaining the process of treating non-substance addictions like internet addiction and disordered eating conditions, known as process addictions, Russman uses a spiral burner on a stove as a metaphor. If the stove is turned to maximum, the burner becomes red and begins to glow. Even when switched off, it will continue to glow red hot until it cools down enough to touch.


“We’re trying to do that with the brain–to cool the brain down after it has stopped the use of chemicals or behaviors,” Russman says. “The brain still needs to reset and cool down, and we use an abstinence period to do that.”


After this dry period, Russman says that patients usually heal on their own with therapy and move towards healthier behaviors. However, in every case, there exists what Russman refers to as a ‘bottom line,’ or a specific action that can trigger a relapse into addictive behavior.


When asked how patients handle the removal of their autonomy, he says that most don’t accept the news gently.


“Their brain has been tricked or hijacked into giving this behavior incredible importance–much more so than is realistic,” he says. “To their brain, this is survival.”




Other methods of treating tech addiction have surfaced around Asia, ranging from boot camps to ‘disconnected’ rehab clinics, where only offline forms of entertainment exist. China was the first country to officially declare internet addiction to be a disorder, while South Korea–rife with its own shocking cases of internet addiction–views it as a full-blown public health crisis.


Alarming cases of tech addiction and a growing pool of literature from scholars eventually prompted the WHO to officially classify gaming as an addiction. However, causes and prevention of tech addiction are still hotly debated issues within the academic community. Since people use technology in innumerable different ways, it’s challenging to reach a consensus on an industry or policy level.


“We say that gaming or internet should be controlled. What kind of control should it be?” says Daniel Shek. “In a way, it is similar to drug addiction, but it is not the same because you can use computers for good things.”


While academics wage their quiet battles of contested opinions, individuals can take certain steps to keep their relationship with technology healthy and beneficial. Russman says that people who are feeling their control on tech usage slip away should focus on strengthening human connections in their lives.


“Attachment with others, social functions, putting the phone down during dinner time,” he says. “These other activities balance out the kind of use that may be becoming problematic and limiting [your] connection with others.”


Russman, Shek, and others in the field agree that our relationship with technology needs to be carefully balanced. One cannot ignore innovations in edtech and elearning, which are making waves in the education sector, and a myriad of other applications in technology that are improving our quality of life.


“I don’t think we can escape from technology,” says Shek. “But I think we should use it in an intelligent manner.”


Nayantara is Jumpstart’s Editorial Associate.

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