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Is Technology the New Opiate of the Masses?

Karl Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses.” Well, to paraphrase Reggie Hammond, Eddie Murphy’s character in the film 48 Hours, “There’s a new opiate in town and its name is technology.” Yes, folks, everywhere you look these days, you see people “shooting up” their technological “drug” of choice, whether emails, text messages, Twitter or Facebook feeds, YouTube videos, streaming movies and TV shows, or playing app games on their smartphones.

Concerns about this “drug” have been gaining increasing attention in recent years. The words Internet and addiction have become conjoined and are now a part of our technology lexicon (usually by people who say it dismissively with a smirk as they ingest this drug through their favorite delivery system, whether computer, tablet, or smartphone). A 2010 survey found that 61% of Americans (the number is higher among young people) say they are addicted to the Internet. Another survey reported that “addicted” was the word most commonly used by people to describe their relationship to technology. Treatment programs for Internet addiction have been springing up all over the U.S. (this despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association decided that it wasn’t worthy of being designated a formal type of mental illness).

The realization that technology is the new opiate of the masses reached a new high (pun intended) when the New York Times Magazine featured an article by Sam Anderson titled (chillingly), “The Hyperaddictive, Time-Sucking, Relationship-Busting, Mind-Crushing Power and Allure of Silly Digital Games.” In this article, Mr. Anderson connects the use of what he calls “stupid games” (I don’t think the quotation marks are necessary; the phrase speaks for itself) with terms such as addiction, OCD, and self-destruction. The game designer Frank Lantz likens these games to heroin and has the audacity to see both as “this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing.” Not an apt metaphor in either case, I’m sure heroin addicts would agree.

His critique is compounded by what is commonly referred to as “gamification,” in which corporations are increasingly using technology as a means of “hooking” customers on their products.

Yet, somehow, Mr. Anderson concludes that these games are, well, just games, in other words, harmless fun.

The addictive quality of technology appears to go deeper than just psychological dependence. There is emerging evidence indicating that our interaction with technology produces the same neurochemical reaction—a burst of dopamine—as that from alcohol, drugs, sex, and gambling. Persistent exposure to technology-related cues, such as the vibration from a smartphone announcing the arrival of a new text message or the ping of an incoming tweet, can cause people to get caught in a vicious cycle of dopamine stimulation and deprivation. Moreover, the brevity of technology, such as 140-character text messages, lends itself to this vicious cycle because the information received isn’t completely satisfying, so people are driven to seek out more information for their next shot of dopamine. Not surprisingly, one study found that people had a harder time resisting the allure of social media than they did for sex, sleep, cigarettes, and alcohol.

Admittedly, unlike drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, in which an addiction can easily be taken care of at Axis Residential Treatment, being hooked on technology doesn’t pose any immediate risks to users, so perhaps we should say, “No harm, no foul.” Heck, I’m not against some mindless entertainment. This is America and, as a free country, we all have a right to “pick our poison” and spend our time however we wish.

At the same time, there is a difference between temporary diversions, sustained obsessions, and uncontrollable addictions. Americans spend an average of five hours a day on line and young people more than 7.5 hours in front of a screen. Moreover, it has been estimated that people worldwide spend over three million hours playing Angry Birds every day. This is not just idle time either; this degree of absorption in technology incurs massive opportunity costs in terms of time, money, relationships, and meaningful experiences.

Mr. Anderson concludes with the notion that technology forces “us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters, moment to moment, in our lives.” Yet, from his description of his experience with technology as “hyper-addictive, time-sucking, relationship-busting, mind-crushing,” there doesn’t seem to be any choice at all; that’s called an addiction. And, if there are choices, for example, whether to set limits and use time more wisely, they don’t speak well of the hundreds of millions of people who decide that these games are a good use of their time.