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Why are we so addicted to technology?

Any geek will agree that tech is one hell of a drug… but why is that so? Here’s a deep dive into the science behind tech addiction.

A raised eyebrow. That’s how most of us reacted when we heard of technology addiction a couple of years back when the term first surfaced. Some of us were whiling away on a couch listening to music on our MP3 players channeled into our ears via the latest IEMs. All the while playing some game or the other on our smartphones. And why were we lounging? Because Steam hadn’t finished downloading the latest video game that had come out just a few days back. Honestly, the first time this writer first came across the term was when his parents accused them of being addicted to technology.

Addicted to technology
Technology addiction, the most common kind.

Whether this is the first time you’re hearing about it or the umpteenth, technology addiction is very much real, and you don’t have to look far to find someone who suffers from it – just look in the mirror! In case a wave of disbelief passed over you right now, allow us to list a few symptoms, so that you can see how far down the rabbit hole you’ve gone.

Are we addicted to technology?

Technology addiction is an umbrella term that describes a host of behaviours, inflictions, injuries, etc., which may be present individually or in a combination. It’s not easy to recognise when you’re starting out, as is the case with any sort of addiction, be it technology or narcotics or other harmful vice which have gained common acceptance (smoking and alcohol consumption, for example). As with every other addiction, it’s difficult to identify and even more difficult to accept. Here’s a simple checklist. Have you:

  • Felt uneasy or anxious while away from a smartphone, tablet, or PC?
  • Lost track of time or events in the real world while engrossed with an electronic device?
  • Had an uneasiness emanating from the constant urge to get back to your electronic device?
  • Found it easier to reach for a smartphone or device rather than deal with a pressing matter?
  • Felt withdrawal symptoms upon being removed from your device?
  • Felt moody or depressed upon attempting to or after having cut down on internet use?

These symptoms don’t necessarily point to just one cause, but if you face these symptoms, then you, we are sorry to inform you, are very much addicted to technology!

Addicted to technology
Kids are at greatest risk of addiction

What is technology addiction?

While the debate on whether to include technology/internet addiction to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) may still be raging in the academic circles, the camp that’s pro-inclusion is growing by the day. The symptoms we’ve mentioned earlier are just some of the factors that might lead to a diagnosis of technology addiction. However, most of us will easily identify with quite a few of the aforementioned symptoms. After all, studies have attested to the same in the US. And even more so, closer to home. A 2014 study by AT Kearney shows that more Indians were connected to the internet every waking hour than the global average. That’s 53%, which puts us in the same league as Brazil, Russia, South Africa and Nigeria. The first world countries are far behind us in this aspect.

It’s the younger population that’s the most active and the highest activity is registered between the ages of 26-35. And a majority of these “addicts” are unmarried and male. And the trend seems to point that kids or ‘digital natives’ are at a much greater risk of falling prey to technology addiction.

Addicted to technology
For most, connectivity is a continuous activity Source: A.T. Kearney analysis

 

Since this is a mental ailment, there isn’t a concrete set of boxes one can check to see if they’re addicted. Certain behavioural traits tend to increase the likelihood of addiction. Certain personalities are more prone to seeking their dopamine rush on the internet – especially introverts. Also, those who’re under immense pressure at work or home tend to gravitate towards the internet to seek solace. An act which slowly leads to escapism.

It’s all about curiosity

We humans have this innate trait to be curious. It manifests in many different ways throughout our daily lives. It’s what drove us to click on clickbaits, makes babies go beserk around the house, toddlers constantly asking “why?”, and in a million other ways.

The extent to which we are curious varies from person to person and the context. After all, we might be curious as to what lies at the other end of a train tunnel, but we won’t stand bang in the middle of the tracks to assuage our curiosity. We still haven’t completely figured out what causes this curiosity, and you could say we’re curious about what makes us curious.

Addicted to technology
Curiosity defines who we are as a species

Curiosity is linked with similar exploratory behaviours. As humans, we have uncertainty and exploring the possible outcomes of a situation puts our mind at ease. Also, there’s the inherent possibility that one of these outcomes might be rewarding. Every colonialist power from our history books can attest to that. And so can Vasco da Gama. There’s also another theory which states that curiosity motivates one because the end result can trigger the pleasure centres of the brain. And research indicates that the act of wanting more information directly involves the brain’s mesolimbic pathways, the very same that account for dopamine activation. For the uninitiated, Dopamine is an organic chemical synthesized in the brain and kidneys that functions as a neurotransmitter. It’s levels are directly proportional to how good we feel. The more Dopamine there is, the better we feel…

Since curiosity is still being explored biologically and psychologically, there aren’t any fixed traits to it. We know that curiosity is broadly classified as perceptual curiosity and epistemic curiosity. Perpetual curiosity is what we feel when we are surprised by something. It’s also associated with the feeling of an unpleasant outcome. This is what drives us to explore such situations. The other type of curiosity (epistemic curiosity) is the giddiness associated with the anticipation of a reward. Simply put, it’s the cause for our thirst for knowledge.

When the outcome of a situation is ambiguous, our curiosity remains unsatiated. There are methods of gaining answers which paint a spectrum of possibilities, and there are methods which lead to more concrete answers. The latter approach, obviously, is preferred since it completely satiates our thirst. The very same approach, also involves the use of technological and / or scientific methods.

Technology, the curiosity enabler

Science in itself, and by extension through its applications i.e. technology, is a great enabler. Those trained in the scientific methodologies can theorise, experiment and seek answers while the rest of us simply use the nearest electronic gadget to get the same answers. The former, unfortunately, need to use the scientific methodologies since they’re exploring the fringes of the known world. While the rest of us can simply be done with a Google search. Technology, thus, gives us the answers. For everyone under the sun, technology enables instant gratification. That bothersome curiosity is instantly put to rest and we get an instant dose of dopamine. Who was the first president of India? Google has the answer. Who discovered the harmful effects of radioactive substances? Google knows. What’s the nearest restaurant that can get you your favourite meal in the least possible time? Ask the Google God!

Addicted to technology
Addicted to screens of all types

The speed at which technology gives us the answers we seek make it very similar to a drug. And with such a vast plethora of knowledge being accessible at our fingertips, we’re getting an uncontrollable supply of the drug. Each and every gadget is akin to a drug peddler and given how pervasive technology is, it’s ridiculously easy to get your fix these days. And once you do, a second dose is never far away. Not to mention countless other doses that follow.

Owing a desktop PC gives you a humongous trove of information and abilities, a laptop allows you to take this to a lot more places that the desktop couldn’t go, and then there’s the humble smartphone which we even take with us to the loo!

Curiosity is a psychological trait, and there is a strong belief that psychological traits are subject to genetic transmission. In his book Why?: What makes us curious, Mario Livio argues the same. He mentions that the very fact that some people are inherently more curious as compared to others has largely to do with genetics. You can enhance this level of curiosity by encouraging people to ask more questions or you can suppress curiosity as we can see in certain cultures where religious doctrine trumps all.

Speaking of traits, personalities are broadly classified into two types, Type-A and Type-B. The former is more competitive, outgoing, ambition and aggressive while Type-B are more relaxed and easy going. Those with Type-A personalities find it a lot more difficult to fight this addiction and should they turn all gadgets off and move away, they fall into a state of exhaustion. Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan in an interview with BBC, says that such personalities, even when watching TV have multiple screens about. They portray a level of hyperactivity, driven by the fear of not being in control. And the lack of offline time causes hyper-arousal of the brain. So they remain in a state of distractibility. This leads to a lack of focus, decrease in memory and academic performance since they’re not developing the part of the brain that deals with singular focus. Apparently, the upcoming generation or digital natives will have it much worse that we do.

Is it just humans?

Animals, for lack of being as intellectually capable as us, aren’t truly addicted. However, the use of tools by animals for the purpose of acquiring something has been well documented. Primates have been observed to make use of rocks to crush nuts, use sticks for combat, use leaves for cover from the rain and stones for plugging holes. Crows have built a reputation for being intelligent, to the point that they’ve been observed dropping hard nuts on the roads for vehicles to run over. Thus, cracking them up so that the crows can feast upon its innards. And it’s not just these vertebrates with a better developed nervous system but even invertebrates like the octopus have been known to retrieve, stack and build shelters out of coconut shells for themselves.

Addicted to technology
Even animals aren’t immune to tech addiction

Animals also exhibit addiction patterns, Australian wallabies are known to seek out poppy plants and dogs are known to harass venomous toads to force them to release bufotenine, a compound which is hallucinogenic. There are many more such examples throughout the animal kingdom. It’s because of such strong resemblance of addictive traits in animals that animal drug testing experiments exist. These models, though unethical in the books of animal activists, are accepted by the scientific community for its proven accuracy. Animals are known to ape those who seem to be using tools as a manner of easing gratification, be it by obtaining food faster or to simply get high. This makes them very similar to us in terms of behavioural traits. While we cannot be certain whether an animal upon gaining our level of sentience might be prone to technology addiction, it certainly seems very plausible.

Time for your next fix

To summarise what we’ve learnt about technology addiction. It can be said that technology addiction is real, is omnipresent because it is so pervasive, and acts as an enabler and reels us by satisfying our instinctual curiosities, plus giving us a seemingly endless supply of dopamine. In the words of the immortal Rick James, “it’s a hell of a drug”. Of course, each and every one of you should take pride in the fact that you’re seemingly bucking the trend. You’re still reading books and magazines, and are firmly grounded. Most others are spending this same time aimlessly scrolling through their Feacebook feeds or watching pointless videos. Give yourself a pat on the back for that, but beware the addiction!

 


This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Mithun Mohandas

While not dishing out lethal doses of sarcasm, this curious creature can often be found tinkering with tech, playing vidya’ games or exploring the darkest corners of the Internets. #PCMasterRace