The Digital Drug

Don Grant

Don Grant

Don Grant, MA, MFA, CCDC, PhD
StartAgain Media, Los Angeles

A synthetic “drug” of pandemic global proportions has now emerged as potentially the most dangerously addictive threat across all population demographics. Easily accessible, completely legal, and designed for mass distribution via attractive packaging, the drug can be purchased over the counter and is often dealt by parents to their children. Its use has been associated with emotional and psychological trauma, untold numbers of illegal activities, and even death. In the relatively alacritous span of time since its original release for public consumption, this FDA-approved drug has forever altered our very way of life. Most reading this currently have it in hand, on their person, or somewhere in close proximity. The drug is called the smartphone and although we may not realize it, we are all prospective volitional sycophants to its slavish temptations.

Just because our progressive dependence upon this seemingly innocuous device does not overtly manifest in the more obviously diagnosable biological, psychological, or sociological symptoms and consequences commonly experienced with other addictions does not render that dependence less potentially compromising. The fact that many of us cavalierly self-deprecate our own reliance upon and maladaptive activities associated with our smartphones (and even criticize the same in others) yet are unwilling to amend our unhealthy behaviors, connotes the same destructive patterns of denial typically identified in the alcoholic and drug addict. Although relatively nascent in terms of its common availability, our growing addiction to this particular technology has made many of us who professionally specialize in addiction begin to believe that the smartphone has become the most potentially dangerous mass drug of choice ever known.

In reality, the smartphone is actually only the “dealer” of a more stealthily nefarious drug: technology itself. Technology addiction has become a topic almost as hot as anything the Apple Corporation decides is our next “must have” item. Inarguably one of the most powerful “drug lords” in the “technology addiction pandemic,” Apple has relentlessly managed to feed a post-Millennial insatiable craving they helped create. Technologically based products the likes of which we could never have imagined—let alone voraciously covet—have now become the direct objects of our most base consumer desires. Considered a luxury item only a decade ago, the smartphone has now become de rigueur almost worldwide; make, model, and accessory enhancement have become the new status symbols. Of course, comparing the smartphone to a drug may appear dramatic and even absurd. When examining the relationship between addicts and their drug of choice against that of users and their smartphone, however, the similarities seem almost indistinguishable.

Addicts keep their drug close, usually on their person or in a carry bag. Although fully aware of its placement, they compulsively pat pockets and check bags to re-ensure its location and security. If misplaced, their anxiety escalates until it is successfully recovered. If accidentally left behind, the addicts will return to retrieve their drugs, even at the risk of being late. Without it, a sense of displacement and loss pervades. It remains perpetually accessible, utilized even when eating, sleeping, having sex, or using the bathroom. Addicts lie about their use — especially if challenged. They overextend finances in favor of maintaining and improving their “user” experience. Relationships, responsibilities, academics, and social events become supplanted or made secondary to its use. A dopamine “squirt” rush comes from using or the anticipation of using. Attempts to control or cut back prove unsuccessful. Lack of ability to use generates restlessness, irritability, and discontent. Attempts to “sneak” use even against better judgment become the norm and thus more “justifiable.” When their “stash” (for smartphones this would be battery life or connectivity ability) begins to run low, anxiety accelerates and conservation becomes the priority until a dealer (electric plug or cell tower) can be secured. Overuse or misuse is invariably followed by guilt, shame, decreased self-esteem (especially after a session stalking social media), and a self-promise not to fall so far the next time. That attempt invariably fails.

Based upon my professional experience working with literally thousands of substance abusers, I can easily translate each of these common addictive-based profiling behaviors to a smartphone addiction. Specialists in agreement have already begun to discuss prophylactic strategies to help prevent our obsession with technology from irreversibly altering our biological, psychological, and sociological bases of our digital natives. Although no diagnoses involving technology addiction was included within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM 5), the criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder were defined in the DSM 5 as meriting enough cause to encourage further study. Gambling Disorder was also reclassified under “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders” in the manual from its previous inclusion under “Impulse Control Disorders Not Elsewhere Classified.” While many professionals interested in Internet Addiction propose its close alignment with pathological gambling, I personally disagree with both them and their course.

In my work with those destabilized by the smartphone and the platforms it supports, I utilize strategies proven successful in treating disordered eating patients. I find their struggles with food to be extremely similar to that of the unhealthy relationship others experience with technology use. No one need ever engage with gambling-based venues, but we do need food to survive. Barring an apocalyptic catastrophe, I do not expect the world to suddenly become void of technology; my prediction is that society will only become increasingly more dependent upon it. Thus in the same manner with which eating disorder patients are taught to build a healthy relationship with food, I help those wrestling with technology abuse to develop a reasonable balance with it as well. Although future issues regarding our ever-increasing smartphone-based reliance are still embryonic, emerging, and fertile fodder for continued discussion, the marriage of mediated technology and its potential psychological consequences certainly beseech media psychologists to join the conversation.

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