Some weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on the power of food marketing. I claimed its messages and images are so carefully crafted to pique our interests and to influence our associations with certain foods that none of us (who are exposed) are entirely immune. I’ve been thinking lately about the larger applicability of this media principle and how it fits the realm of technology. The fact is, we live in an interesting age held in novel tension between in-person reality and technological representation. We see and experience “regular,” real-time living, and then we also regularly intake a selected, stylized version of just about everything associated with life – personal leisure, family doings, food selections, home appearances, relationship depictions, global events, etc. through our technological devices. The whole experiment is unprecedented in human psychology, yet it’s clear we’re drawn in – often further than we’d ever anticipate. Media forms and the status-bearing tools we use to access them claim an increasing and at times problematic place in our lives.
We cutting-edge moderns live with the same 24-hour day confines and same human physiology that requires genetically expected “nuisances” like sleep, sun, solitude, and face-to-face socialization as our Paleolithic ancestors did. Yet, at any given moment today’s generations have “the world” at their fingertips – an infinity of digital information and entertainment we’re told we must know or “must see” or must update. How – I venture many of us ask at some point – do people maintain these multiple “exo-worlds” (e.g. having seen every episode of the latest popular show, being constantly active on Facebook and other social media, mastering online games) in addition to living their own physical lives? The truth is, we all live on a moving continuum of choices. Likewise, we all live with technology. How much we live in (or even for) it, however, varies. Do we make it work for us as tool, or do we become its unwitting subject? At what point does technology (particularly media) use morph into overuse or abuse? Can it move from misuse to addiction? What does all this mean for a thoughtful Primal life?
While experts agree that technology addiction is clearly a growing problem, hard statistics are sketchy. Dr. Kimberly Young, author of Caught in the Net, proposes that approximately 12% of Americans show signs of “problematic” Internet use, for example, while the numbers can climb to 30% in parts of Asia, where Internet addiction is considered a greater problem. Part of the difficulty in pinning down the prevalence is the breadth of issues under the tech umbrella and the relatively recent development/general accessibility of many of these technologies. Internet addiction, for example, wasn’t included in the DSM-V (the 5th and recently updated version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), although online gaming addiction (generally considered a subset of Internet addiction, which itself is part of the larger label of technology addiction) was listed as a condition warranting further study and consideration.
In the absence of agreement on a clear-cut “addiction” definition, many experts prefer to talk in terms of compulsive or pathological use. Mental health professionals note that those with serious pathological use show signs of addiction, including withdrawal. The compulsion can be so strong that it significantly interferences with or takes over subject’s lives as they give up food, sleep and socialization to continue their time with their technology – whether it’s to play online games, view pornography, compulsively browse the Internet or specific social media. Researchers have noted abnormalities in the gray matter of those who use the Internet compulsively.
Some argue it’s a question of focus. We can’t be addicted to the Internet itself but perhaps can be to a kind of content/engagement found on it (e.g. gaming, pornography, gambling, shopping, social media). It’s a reasonable perspective. That said, there’s something compelling beyond a category of content that seems to have a hold on us. A University of Maryland study found that 80% of young adults, for example, experienced physical withdrawal symptoms similar to those of drug addicts (e.g. cravings, heart palpitations, anxiety attacks) when asked to go without their phones for a day. Another Time Magazine international survey showed that nearly 85% of adults couldn’t go for a day without access to our phones.
Yet, it’s not simply the presence of our devices but our perhaps collectively compulsive use of them that surprises. According to a Mobile Mindset Study done by the security app company Lookout, nearly 60% of us look at our phones at least once an hour. For those of us in the youngest group (18-34), that number jumps to almost 70%. Nearly three-quarters of us would be panicked if we lost our phones. More than half of us look at our phones in bed. Almost 40% of us check it while we’re on the toilet, more than a third of us use it while eating a meal with other people, and a quarter of us look at it while driving. While Lookout’s survey can’t claim the scientific gold standard, I have a hunch these ring pretty true. (What do you think?) If this picture doesn’t reflect a collective obsession, I’m not sure what would.
While I clearly conceptualize the difference between the use of technology and addiction to it, I’d also argue that there’s reason to question just how hazy the line has become between what we’re willing to constitute as “normal” versus abnormal use. We see the words technology addiction or Internet addiction and want to discount the whole premise or simply pin it on “those” people who must have other problems. (Indeed, research does suggest that those who qualify as Internet addicts, for example, do tend to have co-occurring conditions.)
Still, I’m going to rock the boat and question whether we can all fall prey to or require active vigilance against the addictive pull of technology. Just as food packaging and store design is set up to hook us, the lure of websites, games and social media show much more sophisticated strategy. Are we perhaps – with our relatively simple and predictable reward centers – playing with fire when we push the envelope online? We might convince ourselves we’re in control, but how many conversations with our kids got derailed or distracted because of something on our phones? How many nights did have we stayed up later than we wanted because we got sucked into online this or that?
Even if we’re not giving up sleep and sustenance, the fact is we may be compromising other elements of daily life. As many experts have noted in the last decade, technology is transforming even our intimate communication – and not necessarily for the better. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle critiques the dampening of personal connection and intimacy with the reliance on technological means of communication and entertainment. When our devices become our sources for leisure and contact, we inevitably deprive ourselves of deeper – more Primal – layers of rapport and attachment. Likewise, we may compromise other elements of health and self-care because of our technological time-sucks. What would our schedules and daily rhythms look like if we did without non-work-essential tech use (during our set work hours)? How much does it take before an indulgence turns into a pattern or at least something that takes too much time and energy to get over to be worth it?
The truth is, we inevitably give up a portion of “real-time” life when we venture to the technological plane of existence however many dozen times per day. Add to that the cognitive “transition” time when we bring ourselves back into the physical present after getting absorbed in our tech tools. No wonder so many of us get that fried, jangly feeling by the end of each day. It’s one wide expanse maybe worth leaving most days between the peace of the simple present and the overstimulation of a virtual world at our fingertips.
Thanks for reading today, everybody. What thoughts would you add about the use and abuse of technology in our culture? What choices do you make? What boundaries do you use for yourself and your kids? Have a great end to the week.