The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.— JOHANN HARI
In the podcast episode The Opposite of Addiction by Your Undivided Attention, Johann Hari makes the case that addiction, amongst other mental health issues, is a symptom of a deeper problem of a disconnected society.
The issue of internet addiction, for instance, isn’t the internet itself, but rather the void it helps us fill.
In other words, addiction is escapism.
Prior to Professor Bruce Alexander’s groundbreaking study on rats, rat parks and social connection, what we knew about addiction came from rat studies that used the Skinner box experiment to assert the idea that addictive drugs caused addiction.
These Skinner box experiments would put a rat alone in an empty cage with two water bottles; one containing just water and the other containing water laced with either heroin or cocaine.
The rat would almost exclusively drink the drug-laced water until it died of overdose. These studies concluded that addiction is caused by addictive drugs.
Professor Alexander’s experiment, which also had both normal water and drug water bottles, however, made one critical adjustment to the Skinner box experiment. Instead of leaving a rat in solitary confinement, he built what he called the Rat Park. The Rat Park had food, toys, and most importantly, other rats to socialize with.
In the Rat Park, the rats’ consumed the drug-laced water at a significantly lower rate than that of the isolated rats. Professor Alexander concluded that rats’ addiction to morphine was mostly a response to isolation rather than simply the addictive nature of drugs.
If we apply Professor Alexander’s rats study to internet addiction, then internet addiction is a response to the social and cultural isolation, in the literal and figurative sense, we are experiencing rather than simply caused by internet use.
As Professor Alexander eloquently put it, “the view of addiction from Rat Park is that today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyper-individualistic, hyper-competitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel socially and culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction to drugs or any of a thousand other habits and pursuits because addiction allows them to escape from their feelings, to deaden their senses, and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”
In other words, addiction is an escape from the loneliness and isolation of modern life.
The irony is that the devices and platforms we seek to ease our isolation exacerbate the loneliness we feel by further isolating us.
We can downsize to a flip phone, cut our internet service at home, or quit social media, and while these strategies can be useful in creating the space needed to foster connections, they don’t get at the core issue of addiction, which is the disconnect and isolation we feel in real life.
For Hari, addiction is a signal of something critical and meaningful missing.
As such, the most effective strategies for dealing with internet addiction are those that deal with the reasons why we feel the need to turn to our devices compulsively in the first place.
What are we avoiding? What are we escaping from? What are we missing? Who is missing? How can we feel more connected? What kind of relationships can we foster for a more meaningful connection?
If there was a Human Park, would it make us forge compulsive digital use for other more meaningful activities?
As concerns and discussions around internet and smartphone addiction continue to grow, it is imperative that these discussions don’t simplify the issue by ignoring bigger social and cultural changes that have ushered in the proliferation of internet and smartphone addiction.
Until next time…
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