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Is technology really addictive?

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Tech addiction is often cited as a scourge of the modern age, but is it really such a threat?

Does technology addiction really exist? And is it damaging us? Ask any parent whose adolescent child is chained to their device or obsessed by gaming into the small hours – and they’ll agree. So too does the World Health Organization (WHO), which controversially classified “gaming disorder” as a disease in 2018.

By talking about addiction, we’re succumbing to “techno-panic”, say some psychologists – and many have publicly protested against WHO’s decision.

Every age worries what its teens are up to – even comics and romance novels once sparked panic, says psychologist Candice Odgers, who’s researched technology use among young people. Our current objections may be based upon weak data.

She’s used to being accosted by angry parents since she pointed out research doesn’t definitively link use of mobile devices and social media to mental health problems in young people.

A 2017 US study stirred widespread panic as reports declared adolescents spending more time on social media were more likely to report mental health issues. In fact, “digital media use accounted for less than 1 per cent of the differences in depressive symptoms among girls, and no association was found among boys,” says Odgers. “To be precise, 99.64 per cent of the differences in girls’ depression was due to something else. Technology is as likely as, say, eating potatoes to cause mental health problems.”

One of the largest studies so far, which looked at more than 120,000 adolescents in the UK, reported no association between moderate levels of technology use and mental health. In fact, devices could even lead to better wellbeing – although the research also noted small negative associations for people with high levels of engagement. What is going on?

Rates of depression and suicide are undoubtedly rising – not only among young people – and this requires urgent attention, psychologists agree. This year, the family of a 14-year-old girl who killed herself said images she had seen on Instagram were partly to blame, which has led the UK to consider a mandatory code of conduct for big tech companies.  

How we spend our time undoubtedly differs from the pre-internet era – just look across a crowded train to witness a sea of devices where once there might have been readers, knitters and even chatters. UK teenagers are on their phones for about 18 hours a week – many for far longer – and much of that time is spent on social media. One in three internet users is a child. Parents fear online gaming, which some believe leads on to gambling – a recognised addiction, not to mention excessive use of social media, porn and harmful content. Are developing brains really safe from technology?

Recent media reports have claimed technology is as addictive “as cocaine”, but this is fear-mongering, writes Christopher Ferguson, professor of psychology at Stetson University. Using technology activates roughly the same pleasure circuits as class A drugs – but so do many other pleasurable activities: from exercise, to eating, to sex. “Technology use causes dopamine release similar to other normal fun activities: about 50 to 100 per cent above normal levels,” he writes. Cocaine on the other hand increases dopamine by 350 per cent; methamphetamine by 1,200 per cent.

‘Behavioural addictions are harder to treat; normally we’d advise abstinence, but technology is inescapable today – you need it for work, everyone has a screen’

Rebecca Sparkes, psychotherapist

Also, can tech users really be labelled as addicts? The NHS defines an addiction as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful. According to Action on Addiction, one in three are addicted to something. But withdrawing from technology use doesn’t prompt the same acute physical symptoms as does quitting drugs or alcohol. Just 3 per cent of gamers develop problem behaviours, such as neglecting school work, and most of these problems eventually disappear, says Professor Ferguson.

A 2016 study found those who appear more addicted to games don’t show more psychological or health problems. One of the most common research findings, says Odgers, is that children who struggle in their offline lives are those who have the most negative experiences online. “Offline risk predicts online risk.”

But even if the problem is relatively mild, the ubiquity of technology makes it impossible to escape, says psychotherapist Rebecca Sparkes, who counsels addicts of all kinds. Losing sleep, not seeing friends, not being physically active is damaging. “I have a coterie of young clients who’re concerned how much of their time they’re ‘losing’ to online gaming. I’m incredibly concerned about it. Behavioural addictions are harder to treat; normally we’d advise abstinence, but technology is inescapable today – you need it for work, everyone has a screen.”

During treatment, says Dr Nick Maguire, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, he’ll ask addicts what level of insight they have about their addiction, and how motivated they are to tackle it – before looking at what function it serves in their lives and how the addiction might be treated. But social media and gaming often help those who might be struggling socially; it’s hard to judge at what stage it might become problematic.

While there has been a flurry of research around our use of technology – including problem shopping, digital hoarding (hanging on to images, texts) and so on – science now needs to look with more detail at what young people are actually doing online, says Odgers.

Spending time learning online is obviously not the same as gaming or scrolling through Instagram, for instance, so researchers now need to ask better questions. Science is also hampered by a lack of a control group – but then, try finding a group of adolescents willing to give up their mobiles for any length of time.

A focus on addiction fears might mask potential benefits that technology offers, such as enhancing social relationships. If we become overly hung up on fears of addiction, will we see technology use wrongly – as a cause rather than a symptom of unhappiness – and perhaps miss the bigger picture? “There’s shockingly little good evidence on this topic,” says Odgers.

Case study

Gambling addiction

Gambling is recognised as an addiction, and ease of access through smartphone use has proved devastating. Those aged 25-34 account for the biggest increase in online gambling of any age group (Gambling Commission) and are most likely to hold more than five online gaming accounts. Former online gambler James says his addiction worsened after the death of his mother when he was 19. “Amounts of money grew bigger and the time I spent on it every day just got worse and worse,” he says.

By the time he asked for help, he was 24, living in his car and suicidal. His father booked him into addiction clinic PCP, where he eventually quit. But last year, seven months clean, he relapsed. “There was an ad on telly for (online gambling firm) Bet365,” he says. “I signed up within three minutes and went on a spree that lasted two and a half days, until I ran out of money. With online gambling it’s so easy, you don’t value the money, it’s easier to continue until you literally have nothing left.”

A close friend helped him back from the brink, and he’s never gambled since. He now volunteers to help others. “I’ve quit all my social media accounts because that’s where I’d see ads for gambling, and I was constantly online – it’s as if I was addicted to those too.” An early intervention programme may have saved him. “If you can plant a seed at a young age that gambling is a problem, then you’d prevent many people going down that route in adulthood.”

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