Is Technology the Latest Designer Drug?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

internet unravelingThere’s no denying it: I am part of the Facebook generation. Mark Zuckerberg was a year ahead of me in college and my school was one of the first to gain access to what was known in 2004 as “The Facebook”—an online college network we checked every couple of weeks in order to share our contact information, our favorite quotes, and which classes we were taking. Today, Facebook has over 900 million active users who check in multiple times a day, posting everything from personal photos to unnerving mid-childbirth updates. Plus, Facebook is just one of countless digital tools contributing to our culture’s social media madness—a phenomenon that, as Newsweek recently reported, may literally be driving us mad.

In his article, Newsweek contributor Tony Dokoupil examines several people whose obsessive web use has had a significant negative impact on their health, producing side effects ranging from blood clots to reactive psychosis. Many of these “technology addicts” have become so mentally unstable that they’ve lashed out and caused physical harm to others. Unsurprisingly, a new study shows that the brains of Internet addicts like these look a lot like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. This mirroring of behaviors and brain functioning speaks to our human propensity towards addiction in general; it’s part of our DNA, whether it manifests in excessive drinking, exercising, TV watching, tanning, or texting. “Addiction” doesn’t have to mean heroin abuse. As our Chief Clinical Officer Deni Carise has said, we can become addicted to almost any activity—even those that are perfectly healthy when practiced in moderation.

Treatment organizations like Phoenix House help people successfully overcome their drug and alcohol addictions every day. So how can these proven treatments inform our society’s approach to this strange new 21st-century diagnosis?  With technology addiction, as with substance abuse, the answer lies in root causes. Suggesting we all toss out our iphones and campaign against Twitter is like advocating a return to alcohol prohibition; it’s a rash and unsustainable fix. Instead, we need to address the inner motivations that make us turn to these addictions in hopes of filling a certain void in our lives. We need to teach our kids (and ourselves) healthy ways to deal with stress, anger, and loneliness—ways that don’t involve a drinking binge or a mind-numbing five hours on Facebook.

The web and social media are powerful tools, but as Voltaire – and Spiderman – aptly said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We can harness these tools to promote important dialogues, to connect with like-minded individuals, and even to enact tremendous social change. But when we find ourselves obsessively tweeting about our lives instead of actually living them, we know we’ve got a problem.

Emma Edelman
Blog Editor
Phoenix House

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