Why Are We So Addicted?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Brandon King


In the Modern Age, we use many advanced technologies in order to help us get us through our daily lives.  One of the most prevalent technologies that people use on a daily basis, are electronic devices. According to Nielsen's Total Audience Report, Americans aged 18 and older spend more than 11 hours a day watching TV, listening to the radio or using smartphones and other electronic devices.  According to census.gov, in 2011, 75.6 percent of households reported having a computer, compared with only 8.2 percent in 1984, and 61.8 percent in 2003 (the last time the Census Bureau asked about computers prior to 2010).  71.7 percent of households reported accessing the Internet in 2011, up from 18.0 percent in 1997, and 54.7 percent in 2003.  The usage of these devices go even farther than that considering that more public places such as restaurants, libraries, and schools, are buying more computers and laptops with Internet access for people to use.

Living in a first world country, one of the main things you will see all around are people intertwined with their electronic devices.  In places of several glamorous attractions such as New York City, Las Vegas, and Hollywood to name a few, you will find towering skyscrapers with large projector screens displaying a form of entertainment, various events taking place all around you, and even beautiful luminescent lights that brighten up the sky at night.  At one point in time, the streets were filled with all kinds of different people coming from all over the world to see the exciting attractions that these wondrous places have to offer.  Yet, nowadays, you do not see the typical person looking up at these marvelous attractions, but looking down at their cellular devices. 

As a college student attending VCU, on my way to class, I will see 4 out every of 5 people with headphones in their ear, and fiddling with their smartphones or tablets.  If I sit down at a café such as Starbucks or Panera and look around, I notice that many people have either a cell phone or a laptop out in front of them staring blankly at the screen while robotically eating their food that is left off to the side of the table, as if whatever is occurring on their electronic device is more important.  It has even gotten to a point where I have seen people on dates at restaurants, and instead of talking and interacting with each other, they will be silently tapping away at their respective iPhones, barely even bothering to acknowledge the other person’s existence.  I myself will admit to playing a couple games of solitaire on my phone when I am by myself and bored, or when I am at home I will most likely be surfing the web, watching the latest YouTube videos.  However, I have seen more often than not worse cases of people walking in the streets with their eyes focused directly on their cell phones, completely oblivious to their surroundings, and more worried about what is going on in the Twitter world rather than worrying about their well-being in the real world.  There have been numerous times where I see people bump into each other because they aren’t looking up at where they are walking, or almost get hit by a car because they aren’t paying attention to where they are going and wander off into the middle of the street.  So, after seeing this type of behavior more and more frequently, it led me to the question, why are people so addicted to electronic devices and the Internet?

Instead of doing some research at the library or coincidentally, the Internet, I first decided to physically go outside and look at how people operate and behave with their electronics.  I looked for what kind of people tend to use their electronics more, what type of environment they were in, and specifically why they might have their electronics out.  Admittedly, this would require me to stare at people and observe them in ways probably way more than any normally behaving person should, however, it is for a research project, so I feel like doing this was necessary and made me feel a little less creepy about it, but I digress.  In looking for these types of situations, I first noticed that the younger the person was, the more likely they were to have a cell phone out while walking around.  Rarely did I see an elderly person with a cell phone out anywhere around town.   You could easily attribute this to the fact that the younger demographic have grown up in the golden age of electronics, so they would be more familiar and accustomed to multitasking by operating something such as a cell phone while still functioning in everyday life (albeit not very well in most cases) .  The second thing I looked for was whether the person was alone, or with a companion or a group full of people.  I noticed that being alone also roughly played a factor in determining whether or not a person was using their electronic devices.  People that were by themselves were more likely to have an electronic device out than people in groups.  I say roughly because there were other factors that played into these occurrences as well.  Like I stated earlier, I would often see couples out on dates that would completely ignore each other and be on their phones.  On the other hand, I also noticed that if a couple or a group of people were interacting with each other fairly well and seemed to be enjoying themselves, hardly ever did I see a cell phone out.

Of course I was very limited in my research for I could only travel to so many places on campus and in Richmond, however I’m sure that the statistics that I have found here are a good representative of what you could find all around the world.  Using this information, I made the inference that people tend to look towards their electronic devices as a source of entertainment when they are bored.  Yet, this hypothesis only scratched the surface of my original question of why people are so addicted.  So I decided to look into more research on the term “addiction”.  When you hear the word “addiction” you probably would immediately associate it with negative implications such as the abuse of hardcore drugs, alcoholism, or sexual addictions.  However, addictions could also refer to the seemingly positive aspects of a person’s life.  Someone may be addicted to their favorite hobby, such as swimming, for example, but since swimming has positive effects, like getting good exercise, people may not see that as an addiction.  The same could be said for electronics and the Internet; using your phone or laptop on a daily basis has become such a social norm, that most people wouldn’t consider it an addiction.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines addiction as a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.” 

Many people don’t realize how hard it would be for themselves to function normally without the use of electronic devices because of how often they use them on a daily basis.  In 2015, Convent and Stuart Hall high school conducted an experiment where kids ranging from grades 4 through 12 would go three days without any technology in order to raise the awareness that peoples’ dependency on technology hinders them of their ability to socialize and connect with other people, enjoy the moment for what it is, and be creative.  It was reported that before the study even began, teens were eager to send out last minute texts and social media posts before giving up their electronics.  One student described the beginning of the study, saying that he was initially anxious, and would reflexively reach into his pocket for his non-existent phone on the first day without his electronics.  I feel very addicted to social media and stuff, or dependent is a better way to describe it,” stated the student. “It’s like habitual dependency, and I feel like I could do without that.  He also stated that he felt like he wasn’t sure if he could force himself to take any more timeouts without technology like that again.  Another student stated that it wasn’t as hard to desist from using technology at school, because he was around other people and they were participating in the challenge as well, but when he was alone at home, with no one to talk to, the temptation was too great.  He stated that he felt different and naked without his phone, so when he caved in and used it again, he felt normal.  The phone gave him a sense of security when no one else was around.  “Technology has the odd distinction of both connecting people in unprecedented ways at the same time that it isolates them. Several students noticed that when they didn’t have their phones or iPads, they were more ready to connect with friends and family, and more aware when those people were themselves wrapped up in devices.”  Stated Katrina Schwartz, the author of the article on the study. 

Once again, I felt that a part of my inquiry was answered, but not completely, so I searched for more answers.  I eventually found a Ted Talks video that described addiction as a whole, called “Everything You Think You Know about Addiction Is Wrong”, hosted by journalist Johann Hari.  The idea of the video is that people aren’t necessarily addicted to the drug, electronic, etc., but rather that they are striving to bond with others, and if others aren’t around to bond with them, their addiction to whatever the substance may be serves as a substitute.  Hari supports this conclusion by giving a few examples, one of them being the case in the Vietnam War.  He stated that “In Vietnam, 20 percent of all American troops were using loads of heroin,” and talks about how during that time news reports had people worried that we were going to have hundreds of thousands of heroin addicts returning home.  He goes on to state that, “The Archives of General Psychiatry did a really detailed study, and what happened to them?  It turns out they didn’t go to rehab.  They didn’t go into withdrawal.  95 percent of them just stopped.”  He talks about how this is because the troops used the heroin to cope with the traumatizing events of the war, and that when they returned home, they were returning to family and friends that would provide that sense of connection and happiness they were longing for that was earlier replaced with the effects of the drug.  Another experiment that Hari mentions is a study that was performed in the 70’s by a psychology professor in Vancouver by the name of Bruce Alexander.  In the study, Alexander takes a single rat and puts it in a cage with two water bottles.  One of the water bottles contains normal water, and the other is water laced with cocaine or heroin.  Eventually, the rat gets hooked on the water laced with the drug and overdoses, resulting in death.  He then does the same experiment, except with a group of rats put together in the cage, along with cheese, colored balls, and tunnels.  Essentially, the rats develop relations with each other, and as a result rarely ever used the drug laced water.  The series of experiments concluded that the rats went from almost a 100 percent overdose on the drug laced water when isolated, to zero percent when in a community.

Obviously these cases are pretty extreme cases of addictions, but I noticed that there are definitely similarities in these cases that I have found on the web and the observations I conducted while walking around the streets of Richmond.  The more that people connected with each other face to face, the less time they spent on their devices and on the Internet, and the more lively they appear. 

I also came to the conclusion that another the reason electronic devices and the Internet are particularly addicting to the point where people use it at such a frequent level, is because things such as social media are present in this day and age.  Text messaging and sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram give people a sense of connectivity like never before.  Even when people are a significant distance apart from each other, they can still be aware of what the other person is up to consistently through these features.  This has a positive influence on our communities, as well as a negative influence.  Teens especially abuse these tools to the point where they can be regarded as analogous to the negativity of an addictive drug.  Rather than connecting with people in order to strive for a common goal and achieve something greater, we would rather compete with each other for more friends on Facebook, or more likes on an Instagram post.  A false sense of connectivity is produced through this outlook and people are increasingly turning to this rather than to actually connecting with the person that is right in front of them. 

In reference to Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, I remember a specific nugget in the article that caught my eye in which Nelson talks about the future of mankind surrounding the use of media, in which he states, “But today, at this moment, we can and must design the media, design the molecules of our new water, and I believe the details of this design matter very deeply. They will be with us for a very long time, perhaps as long as man has left; perhaps if they are as good as they can be, man may buy even more time— or the open-ended future most suppose remains.”  What I took from this nugget is that the age of advanced technology and media is inevitably upon us (this includes social media), and I agree with the fact that we should indulge in its uses, for it will help us evolve into a better species as a whole.  But at the same time, we are currently maltreating these technologies and turning them from something that should help us grow and connect with each other, into something that is isolating us from each other in ways that are so subtle and deceiving that by the time we realize how isolated we are from each other, it will be too late.

In conclusion, I think that the use of electronic devices and the Internet is beneficial for our future and will help us reach new heights exponentially.  However we shouldn’t turn away from why our addictions to electronic devices are so powerful, and that is because our eternal longing for bonding and connecting with each other on a more personal and intimate level will exceed any drug or substance out there.  So maybe we should look up from our smartphones or our computer every once in a while and have a meaningful conversation with the person sitting next to us.