Addiction is not a simple topic. There is no black-and-white morality to it, and no easy answers for how to treat it. Yet, despite what we know about addiction, it remains one of the most polarizing and heavily stigmatized illnesses in society. Whether it comes in the form of a behavioral addiction, drug abuse, or an addiction to technology, addiction is often conflated with a poor judgement of character, weakmindedness, or a lack of moral principles.
Not only is this an inaccurate portrayal of how addiction works, but it is also actively harmful and feeds into attitudes and policies that have disproportionately affected society’s most downtrodden. A more thorough understanding of how addiction works can help us effect positive change in our communities and families alike and save our children from struggling needlessly with addiction and the dangerous stigma it carries.
How Addiction Works
Addiction begins in the brain. While the conventional definition usually suggests substance use, there are various forms of addiction. In some cases, people can become clinically addicted to the manipulative reward systems of the gambling industry, for example. They begin to crave gambling, are unable to quit the habit, and continue to jeopardize themselves and those they love for the rush of a potential win.
But we can also develop addictive tendencies and engage in self-destructive or harmful behavior due to something seemingly innocuous, such as social media overuse or smartphone addiction.
The throughline for all addiction is the way our brain recognizes and incentivizes behavior it considers “good.” A most basic example is food – the reason food is a strong motivator is that we need it to live, and certain foods are more effective at helping us survive than others.
Evolutionary psychology contends that we are naturally drawn to higher-calorie foods, especially simple sugars (that provide boosts of energy) and fats (which are filling and hard to come by), to the point that entire industries have arisen to capitalize on our natural love of highly palatable sweet and fattening things.
But not everyone is highly food motivated. Some of us are more inherently food-centered than others.
It’s the same way with much more serious and dangerous addictions. A drug like nicotine can provide a rush of dopamine and clear the mind. But many people struggle to put it down after some time, while a rare few can pick up smoking and quit on a dime.
What is an Addiction to Technology?
A technology addiction does not exist as an official diagnosis or mental health condition. But it is a concept of growing concern as of late. Moral panic is nothing new, and we can correlate the rise of every type of communication medium with a movement dedicated to explaining how it will lead to the downfall of society, from television to the radio to the invention of the printing press.
But technology addiction may be an idea with some genuine merit behind it. While not as serious as a substance use disorder, addictive tendencies may be spotted in teens who struggle to manage a healthy relationship with their technology and continue to engage in self-destructive behavior – such as spending inordinate amounts of time on social networks, struggling to fall asleep due to screen-related insomnia, and being unable to put down the phone – despite clear and inherent consequences.
Addictive tendencies are more common in some people than others. While there isn’t necessarily such a thing as an addictive “personality,” some people are definitely more susceptible to manipulative reward systems or the damaging effects of an addictive drug than others. In that sense, a teen who struggles to put down the phone or stop doomscrolling Twitter despite making their own commitment to try and minimize screen time for their own good may be more susceptible to the effects of other kinds of addiction, including drug use.
A personal commitment is an important element here. It’s one thing to say your teen can’t stop using their phone, even though you warn them of the consequences, or try to ground them for poor homework or restlessness. It’s another if your teen makes the decision to try and ease up on their technology use of their own volition. Struggling with the latter is a greater sign of an addiction than the former.
Early Drug Use and Addiction in Adulthood
We know from research that drug use earlier in life is much more likely to cause long-term addiction later in adulthood. The earlier someone starts using the drugs, the higher the chances that they will continue to struggle with drug habits when they’re older.
In that sense, addictive tendencies towards other things, or behavioral addictions, may also play a role in developing the same kind of pathways in the brain that make it harder to escape addiction later in life.
Treating and Preventing Addiction
The core tenet of addiction treatment and prevention is long-term support.
Trying to get someone to stay “clean” by themselves is often a recipe for disaster. Addiction is not a matter of willpower or moral strength – it is a psychological and physical condition that affects the brain’s limbic system, the reward pathway between the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and prefrontal cortex. The complex neural interplay whenever an addiction matures can develop into a vicious cycle, reinforced by stigma or shame-based treatments, as well as codependent health conditions, such as chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
Working with professionals and close friends or family members is necessary for helping a teen overcome the initial stages of addiction treatment and learn to develop the coping skills needed to avoid relapses and become more resilient against triggering stressors.
When it comes to prevention, it’s a similar game plan. A residential treatment program centered around one-on-one talk therapy can help adults who are having trouble regulating their behavior and emotions develop the tools to do so, while teaching family members and friends how to best support their loved ones, be role models for them, and recognize the signs of a growing problem in the future. It isn’t enough to “just say no.” It’s important to continue to learn about how addiction develops and the risks of drug use in a nuanced, well-researched, and scientific manner.
Whether technology addiction is a real problem in need of clinical recognition or the growing pains of transitioning into a world increasingly and inevitably split between the physical and the virtual is something for researchers and psychiatrists to determine in the near future. But what we can determine is that the way we interact with potentially addictive behaviors in our day-to-day can give us clues as to how dependent we might become when faced with a dangerous substance.