The New Addiction

Technology addiction is a real problem today. Both the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) have recognized it as a behavioral disorder, evidenced by an individual’s obsession with the interaction or activities gained through an electronic device. Symptoms range from depression to severe anxiety and self-abuse. The growing trend among teenagers is especially troubling, and public concern has prompted the development of numerous treatment centers across the country. These hospitals offer a last line of defense after failed efforts by parents and educators who are pressured by a tech-driven media as well as huge corporations and their strategic advertising.

Of course, the parental guidance issue has been around a long time – parents of today fought with their parents over watching too much TV. What’s different is that today’s parents do not have conventional wisdom or a disapproving education system on their side. Social media and video games are not regarded as today’s “boob-tube.” In fact, school systems buy into the Internet wholesale as they embrace the new “Gates-ian” philosophy of equal opportunity education through technology. It is supposedly an indispensable learning tool – one that ensures success in the future. However, it is increasingly obvious that the Gates-way to the future is also a trap door.

As a college and high school English teacher, I witness issues over technology every day. Cellphone and Internet abuse has become a routine discipline problem. Even in the computer labs (our new “libraries”) teachers cannot help but feel pressed into doing more police work than instructing, trying to sneak around corners to catch kids on Facebook or inappropriate websites. Most disturbing is the image of a student agonizing over having been separated from his device, carrying on as if someone had killed his best friend.

texting

More complicated is the double threat of a media that is inextricably bound to advertisers and the corporations they represent. Tapping into the core of American ideology, advertisers appeal to our basic understanding of the free market, touting each new gadget or app as essential in gaining the competitive edge over a rival. Individualism has been driven to new depths of self-interest and self-righteousness – consumers can ostensibly ignore the mass popular culture as they hone their own “unique” tastes in music, film, and social media. Teens are especially inclined to use technology as a means to a sense of self-identity and self-esteem. It serves as a guide to developing social values.

But what social value exists if there is no real, physical human interaction outside these sterilized bubbles kids make of themselves? Is it possible that the more friends one gains on Facebook, the lonelier one becomes? Perhaps the new treatment centers will address much of this. But wouldn’t it be better if the parents and schools had been able to do so already?

A recent Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial speaks volumes. A family is having dinner together at home over a bucket of chicken. As the two kids eat with their head phones on, engrossed in their laptops, the parents make light of the situation: Well, at least we are eating together!

Today’s advertisement industry is a formidable propaganda machine that relies on multiple sources of research to ensure the efficacy of its creative strategies. Millions of dollars are spent on mere seconds of final product, and there are no accidents. Once relying on social science as its source of information, ad companies now have Big Data on their side, and in that process, they have bridged over to a near-pure science. It would appear that Huxley’s new world has arrived.

However, why blame the industry for having evolved to perform at such a high level? It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. What is more disturbing is that the key to the success of any advertisement is the accuracy with which it reflects the existing values and behavior patterns of its targeted demographic group. KFC family values have become the norm, at least for the socio-economic group that is most inclined to eat from paper buckets. The family in the ad has accepted that technology use is more important than traditional family communication. In doing so, they have abandoned the first line of defense in the fight against technology addiction. We can only hope that the second line – educators – can somehow pull off an upset against an omnipresent corporate entity that is more than willing to sacrifice a few misfit addicts if it means selling a few million dollars’ worth of new machines.