Pushing Back: Is Technology Addiction Real?

The news media loves a crisis.

That’s how they sell papers, increase viewership, and get website clicks. Big crises are easy to push: international incidents, natural disasters, and salacious scandals sell themselves because everyone wants to know what’s going on. But when there is no crisis, media outlets try to create one in order to boost their numbers.

A recent article published on the tech and science website Undark claims that’s exactly what’s happened with regards to technology and addiction: the media has made a crisis where there really isn’t one. Katie Couric – an influential media figure by any metric – dedicated an entire show to the idea that technologies like smartphones and behavioral trends like surfing social media sites for hours on end have the same effect on our brains as drugs of abuse like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.

Fact or Fiction?

Guest experts on Couric’s show claimed screen time activates the same neural pathways as those involved in addiction, and trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter known to play a significant role in the reward and pleasure centers of our brains. The inclusion of Internet Gaming Disorder as a “condition for further study” in the DSM-V (the go-to diagnostic bible for mental health professionals) bolsters the case media experts make for the addictive potential of technology. Especially since the list of diagnostic criteria the DSM-V includes for the condition makes it look a real condition with real symptoms that can cause real problems.

We published an article on the subject called “Am I Addicted to My Phone? My Parents Think So But Is That Even a Thing?” Click the link and see if we fell for the hype. We think we stayed reasonable, but you can judge for yourself.

Back to the topic: the experts on the Katie Couric show cite the fact that technology increases dopamine levels as evidence that technology should be considered as addictive as known drugs of abuse. Let’s look at that.

Is the dopamine evidence enough to make their case?

The Effect of Drugs and Technology on Dopamine Levels

First of all, the idea that dopamine is the pleasure molecule is false. Dopamine does play a role in addiction, pleasure, and reward, but how it’s involved is complex. To set yourself straight on dopamine, read this article. That said (and that read), let’s see how dopamine levels triggered by technology compare to dopamine levels triggered by other things related to pleasure and reward.

Dopamine release, by activity:

  • Baseline level: 100%
  • Food: 150%
  • Video Games: 175%
  • Sex: 200%
  • Cocaine: 450%
  • Amphetamine: 1,000%
  • Methamphetamine: 1,300%

Clearly, the numbers say video games – and by loose extension for the purposes of this article, we’ll say screen-based technology in general – elevates dopamine levels significantly above baseline. But to say it does so in numbers anywhere close to those observed for drugs of abuse strains credulity to the breaking point. This doesn’t mean technology lacks addictive potential, or that excessive video gaming and social media use are problem-free. What it means is that the neurobiology of technology addiction is, as yet, unverified by scientific literature.

The Healthy Skeptic

We’re sure you’ve heard the phrase trust but verify. In the age of click-bait headlines, we urge you to simplify that phrase further. When you see an alarming headline like “Cellphones are Destroying Our Children’s Brains,” drop the first two words of trust but verify and live by the maxim verify.

Verify, and use your common sense. Cell phone use may never trigger a release of dopamine anywhere close the same levels of dopamine triggered by heroin. However, cell phone use that interferes with work or relationships is a problem. Perhaps not as big a problem as heroin addiction, but a problem nevertheless. The same goes for video games, social media posting, and other uses of technology: if the behavior interferes with your daily responsibilities to work, friends, and family – that’s a red flag. If the behavior degrades your self-esteem and has a negative impact on your overall happiness and well-being – that’s a problem.

And those clickbait headlines about addiction and mental health issues?

If the result is that you read an article, declare it’s hogwash, then research the topic by examining a variety of well-respected and non-sensationalist sources, then in the end, you win. You beat the hype, exercise your intellect, and gain real knowledge on a subject that could be important for you or someone in your family.

And that’s a good thing.