When we hear the word addiction, we immediately think of drug addiction, but this post is not just about drugs. It’s about everything that we can possibly get addicted to, including our digital devices. If we accept Steven Kotler’s premise that we are all addicts to a degree, then we need to pay attention to this and figure out how we can beat this problem that is inherent in all of us.
Steven Kotler wrote an extremely insightful article on Forbes about the nature of addiction and why we need to learn how to manage it, even if we think we don’t have a problem with it.
We’re all addicts to some degree because that is how our brains function – through a positive reinforcement reward system that helps us learn. By virtue of this fact, that makes us all prone to addiction. Life experiences and personality may alter our risk levels for addiction but they do not eliminate it.
There are no non-addicts in the world for the simple reason that the brain functions by addiction.
There is a cycle of neurobiology beneath habit acquisition (cue, routine, reward) and the final stop on that cycle—the reward—comes from the release of dopamine, the brain’s principle reward drug. This reinforcement locks habits into place. This cycle is how we learn.
But dopamine is the same neurochemical that makes amphetamines, morphine, nicotine, cocaine, shopping, porn, sex, gambling, eating, internet use, video games, falling in love and a host of other “addictions” addictive.
Even if we consider ourselves low risk to the common addictions of drugs, gambling and sex, there is an even more prominent addiction that faces us all – digital addiction. Unlike other addictions that we can choose to avoid, digital media is something we must face everyday in order to live in this world. Perhaps the most significant point that Kotler raises in his article is this: we bring children into a hyper-connected digital world but we’ve given very little thought about how to help them navigate this world. It is akin to throwing them into the deep end without any armbands or swimming lessons.
We are totally hooked on communication technology and have very little ability to deal with this addiction. The link between our desire for instant gratification and the Internet’s ability to deliver is pretty unbeatable. We can take “screen vacations” from time to time, but basic biology says we’re never going to be able to triumph over this “addiction.” It’s too fundamental and too omnipresent.
If we were honest about all these things, we could start teaching ourselves and our children how to manage these issues from the get-go. Addiction is a fact of life – it’s actually just normal brain function. In the 21st century, addiction management is a fundamental survival skill. – Forbes
If we accept that we’re all addicts to some degree, then our goal should be to learn how to manage this addiction and keep it under control so it doesn’t ruin our lives. Beyond that, we also need to start teaching our children the skills to manage their addictions and we need to begin as early as possible. This involves teaching them grit, emotional control and delayed gratification which brings us back to Angela Duckworth’s Grit and Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test.
Recovering from Addiction
So what if we’re too late? What if we have children already in the maelstrom of addiction? What can we do?
Johann Hari’s TedTalk on Addiction is an extremely enlightening talk that I think all parents should watch. It is a compelling message that goes beyond addiction. It highlights the awesome power of connection – I mean real human connection, not the artificial ties we think we have through social media – that brings us back again to the message that love really does conquers all.
Don’t have time to watch it? Here are the main take home points:
- What if addiction isn’t chemical in nature but environmental? Think of all the patients who use morphine for pain management but do not get addicted.
- Rat experiment 1: Put a rat in a cage and give it two water bottles – one with plain water and the other laced with heroin or cocaine. In this scenario, the rat will almost always prefer the drug water and almost always kill itself quite quickly.
- Professor Alexander pointed out a flaw in experiment 1 – the rat is in an empty cage with nothing to do except use the drugs.
- Rat experiment 2: Put a rat in a cage with lots of things to do – lots of cheese, lots of colored balls, lots of tunnels, and other rat friends. The same two water bottles – normal water and drugged water – are also included. In this scenario, the rats don’t like the drug water. They almost never use it and if they do, they never use it compulsively and they never overdose.
What does this mean for us?
We have a natural and innate need to bond.When we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other. If we can’t – because of trauma, isolation, or other psychological problems – we end up bonding with something that will provide relief, like gambling, pornography, or drugs.
Portugal Case Study
In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin. Every year, they punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more, and every year, the problem got worse. Finally, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition set up a panel of scientists and doctors to discover what would genuinely solve the problem. The panel looked all the new evidence and concluded that the government decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack and use all the money formerly spent on cutting addicts off and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society.
So the new method for handling drug addiction included: residential rehab, psychological therapy, and a massive program to reintegrate the former addict back into society. In other words, addicts were given opportunities to get work and start up their own small businesses. The goal was to make sure that every addict had a reason to get out of bed every morning. When spoken to, these addicts said they rediscovered purpose and they rediscovered bonds and relationships with the wider society.
15 years later, injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Overdose, HIV and addiction have significantly reduced.
So how do we help drug addicts? Connect with them. The core message we should be telling them is this: you’re not alone and we love you. Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.