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Being Human: Facing the Black Mirror of Technology Addiction

The second edition of ‘Being Human,’ our new series dedicated to mental health, focuses on the growing issue of technology addiction.

Written by psychotherapist Douglas Holwerda, who has spent nine years working as a counselor in Vietnam for both English-speaking Vietnamese and foreigners, the series delves deeply into subjects that are relevant to people living in Vietnam.

All over the world, humanity is grappling with a new addiction. In the UK, 75% of children now spend less time outside than prisoners. Recent statistics say over 40 million Vietnamese use Facebook every day. Charlie Brooker’s hugely popular dystopian TV series Black Mirror examines the unanticipated consequences of modern society’s new technologies. The name itself derives from feeling disconnected from reality after using a smartphone or iPad until the battery dies, when one is left staring at a black screen and forced to face the real world. All over the world, it seems, we are trying to come to terms with this new reality.

A few years ago, one of my clients was a 15-year-old boy whose mother was concerned about his grades at school. He’d slipped from being an excellent student to barely passing. He’d lost all motivation for studying or even for going to school at all. Minh (not his real name) and his mother began arguing over his studying habits and how he focused his time — much of which was spent on the computer playing video games. Minh agreed to meet me for an initial visit, which then turned into more than two years of regular therapy.

I learned through our sessions together that Minh was, in fact, living in two worlds; a virtual world where he was skilled at an organized set of challenges and where there were no actual consequences to the risks he took, and the real world, where he was part of a dysfunctional family whose conflicts were never resolved and whose expectations always led to a sense of failure in Minh, no matter how hard he tried.

Image via creative commons.

In the virtual world, he had friends from around the globe who knew him for his accomplishments, even though they’d never met him in person. In the real world, he was socially awkward. He didn’t measure up to the expectations of adults or his peer group, with whom he found little in common. He started to schedule his life around the times when certain others were online. Consequently, he was often playing video games at night when he should have been sleeping, which meant he was tired during the school day.

I listened to his story. I empathized with all the ways he felt pain, such as his dysfunctional family or school expectations that seemed to him like mere demands on his time and energy and that were of little real interest. And yet it was only when we started to consider that life in the virtual world was making it more difficult for him to function in the real world that I could see how serious his problem had become. He made it clear that if he were not allowed to continue spending time in the virtual world that he would rather die. He was even willing to take his own life.

This real-life story is not particularly uncommon. Millions of people right now are struggling with this tension between online activity and real-world responsibility. It has become a modern-day trap. Our cellphones, to a lesser or greater extent, are another version of Minh’s video games.

For now, though, I want to take a step back and take a wider look at the issue, in order to gain perspective on how to face this threat for the sake of prevention. Let’s start with the idea of human potential.

William James, known as the ‘father of American psychology,’ once said: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake…the human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.” James describes this powerlessness as “the habit of inferiority to our full self.”

It is via this idea of human beings’ great potential that we can see the limitations most of us live within. Many do get stuck somewhere along the line and therefore don’t achieve their greatest potential. We must face this on two fronts: what do we imagine as our potential, and what must we overcome to get reach it? It is difficult to envision our individual potential when we are distracted or avoiding parts of reality, especially when we are evading the very things that might help us solve our problems and conceive what is possible for ourselves and the world around us.

Addiction is often described as a power outside of oneself that becomes greater than the power within. An addict is compelled to make choices that are ultimately destructive. One’s freedom of choice is sacrificed; the object of the addiction takes control. It points to a fundamental dynamic we are often unaware of — whether we should focus our awareness on our inner life or on that which lies outside us. Addiction is the trap that makes us servants to forces outside ourselves. This costs us our inner life, wherein lies the freedom to discover who we really are. Self-knowledge, self-awareness and connection, on other hand, are the sources of our potential to manage these contrasting forces acting upon us.

Let’s look briefly at how we might become addicted to something. It begins with the pleasure of stimulation. Excitement, suspense, gratification and even happiness are all emotions that first arise, along with a rush of adrenaline and endorphins in the brain. If we continue to seek the stimulation causing that pleasure, we find it takes longer to produce the same emotional and chemical response. At some point, the actual pleasure reduces, yet the pain we experience when not partaking in the addiction increases. We stimulate our pleasure centers to avoid the undesired emotions that appear when we cease engaging in the addiction. For Minh, it was imagining being without his computer (his virtual reality) that caused him to feel suicidal.

The sequence goes like this. Stimulation from outside ourselves provides gratification. This can soon develop into distraction from our inner-life, which leads to avoidance of reality. We find ourselves escaping the pain or truth we would rather not face. Avoidance, however, is not sustainable without an increase in discomfort. It is through seeking temporary relief of that pain that one becomes addicted.

Often, when we think of addiction, we associate it with cigarettes, drugs, alcohol or gambling. We also know that it’s possible to become addicted to sex or pornography. What is less clear in the minds of most people is the way the internet has affected what we do, and how we focus our minds. Is it addiction when we spend hours and hours online, our mind focused on the page in front of us? Is the immediate gratification of social media keeping us from discovering more of who we are? Or, to look at it another way — many of us might describe someone as an alcoholic if the first thing they did in the morning was to drink a bottle of beer. What is the first thing you do in the morning?

Photo by Chris Humphrey.

Before we try to answer the question of whether or not the internet or smartphones represent dangerous forms of addiction, let’s take another step back and look at how they may be part of a wider, unnoticed change, which we are yet to fully understand.

For most of human history, change has occurred slowly. People lived and died without drastic changes in their environment. The pace of people’s lives was organized in closer alignment with nature. In modern life, rates of change have accelerated at unprecedented levels. And the constancy of this change factors into all of our lives. What does it mean to live in a time where change occurs so fast we can’t even fully realize the effect that it has on us? It could mean that sources of stimulation are more powerful and we become drawn to them in ways we do not fully control. We’ve grown accustomed to needing stimulation — without it, we feel anxiety, boredom, discomfort, perhaps even a bleak desire for fatal escape. Our attachment to stimulation makes distraction and avoidance more appealing and paves a path towards the nightmare of addiction.

I suggest that we are collectively losing touch with the freedom that comes from a more internal sense of self, having grown increasingly detached from world around us. In Minh’s case, stimulation created a powerful distraction from painful realities and perpetuated a system of avoidance, leading to dependence and, ultimately, addiction. The longer the avoidance takes place, the more difficult it is to overcome the addiction.

The solution for Minh and his family is unclear. Like all addiction, it is difficult and painful to undo. Yet, if we follow the above explanation, it is vital we look at how we can respond to stimulation in a world of near-constant change. Self-knowledge, awareness and connection may help us solve the challenges of life and align with our deeper ideals, our strongest sense of self. Perhaps most of us are addicted on some level to technology, and the constancy of change in contemporary life keeps us distracted from meaning and purpose.

Photo by Chris Humphrey.

It is not merely sobriety that is needed. Mindfulness and connection are the opposite of addiction. When we are present, when we connect with communities, when we experience the real world through our senses, we are more likely discover our true potential. There is a freedom in getting off the treadmill of stimulation. Yes, we might face more painful emotions or the hardships of life, but those too will be eased by the passage of time.

I am concerned that too many of us are made to stray from the peaceful place our inner life affords us, that people travel ever deeper into the constancy of change and past the point where we recognize we are distracted and avoiding aspects of life that offer so much more. Addiction is an extreme, yet isn’t it true that most of us are living partway down that path? We are distracted, avoiding discomfort and taken away from ‘being’ human.

‘Being’ is living from the inside out. It includes an awareness that our emotions and thoughts are passing through us and should not be avoided or ignored until later on. Being is not passive, it requires action based on present information to deal with current circumstances. When we live from the inside out, we are empowered to be our authentic, true selves. And through this, we can then take or leave the stimulation that tempts us, and focus on reality, community and purpose — not just for ourselves, but for the others in our lives who need that love and connection too.