The addictive loop of technology: is it helping or hurting our chances of beating addiction

By marcel-gemme 11/12/19
Technology has managed to snag the role of anti-hero in the age-old, still-unfolding drama of human addiction.

Technology and addiction have an interesting history together. The advent of technological advancements like the printing press, telephone, radio, and television have all prompted fears that people would become so enamored with them that physical human connection would fall by the wayside.

The pattern repeats itself to this day. Personal computers, smartphones, video games, and social media are all sources of concern for those who worry that people who use them will fall into a pattern of addiction. But so far there’s little evidence of these technologies causing health problems on a major scale.

That said, the worry is not unfounded. For example, the World Health Organization recently recognized addiction to video gaming as an official mental disorder. And though the decision has been controversial, countries like China have taken a hard line on gaming, citing surveys indicating that a large number of children are at high risk of addiction to them.

In a broader sense, it would be naive to dismiss the connection between technology and addiction. Technology, after all, extends well beyond the digital, and as it has improved throughout history, the potential for human addiction has risen in parallel.

Technology has allowed us to create stronger, more addictive substances -- and deliver them to the far corners of the globe. It has enabled us to cultivate, manufacture, advertise, and bring to market massive amounts of crops that have formed the basis for global epidemics of addiction -- among them tobacco and the grains from which alcohol is made.

And while the past has its own story to tell, no one yet knows what the future will hold, except that it will be rife with digital technology. Our constant use of smartphones may not constitute addiction yet (to be classified as an addiction, harm to health must be shown), but as we become more and more unified with devices and new forms of technology, it’s possible that the trend will take a toll on our wellbeing.

Technology has also proven to be helpful in combating substance abuse and other forms of addiction. Neuroimaging, for example, refers to a highly advanced set of technologies that gives researchers the power to look into the brains of sufferers and learn more about the physiology of addiction.

According to a study published in The Journal of Addictive Diseases, smartphones, other connected devices, and the Internet constitute a very promising set of technologies when it comes to enabling the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of substance use disorders. The authors assert that technology-based interventions have the potential to optimize treatment effectiveness and positively impact those in recovery.

For example, there are a number of apps already available to help people in addiction recovery (some more successfully than others). Typically, these apps provide information about recovery, tools for motivation enhancement and progress monitoring, and ways to connect with others for social support.

Google’s newly released Recovery Resource Hub is a good case study. Users can leverage Google’s massive database of information to connect with others and find support groups or meetings in a given area.

These are just a few examples of how technology is helping us to discover more about, treat, and even prevent addiction. This raises an intriguing question: how can we develop and promote an attitude that allows us to indict technology for its role in certain kinds of addiction (when appropriate), but simultaneously embraces its potential to help solve those same problems? It’s a worthy query not only for addiction specialists, but for all healthcare providers, as well as researchers, innovators, policy-makers, social influencers, and the general public.

Addiction threatens thousands of lives every single day. Hopefully, we can continue to find solutions of all kinds (technological and otherwise) to save as many of them as possible.


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