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Dr. David Black on Digital and Social Media Addiction

July 6, 2018
Dr. David Black
Dr. David Black on Digital and Social Media Addiction

Distinguishing substance and behavioural addiction

When we think about addiction, it’s not surprising that dramatic images worthy of scenes from films like Leaving Las Vegas or Trainspotting come to mind. Substance addiction, be it to alcohol or to still harder drugs like cocaine and crystal meth, can destroy bodies and lives with a ferocity that reveals the human condition at its most abject. That acknowledged, defining addiction exclusively in terms of substances leaves us at risk of regarding addiction too narrowly.

In recent years, obsessive involvement with food, gambling, and sex, has also been clinically defined as addiction, albeit as what is called “behavioural addiction.” While addiction to substances and to behaviours are not identical in their power over our will or the damage they inflict to our brains, they share in common one important variable: both stimulate the brain to create dopamine, a neurochemical that produces feelings of euphoria.

Still, whether we’re speaking of heroin or slot machines, it remains that it’s relatively easy to insulate ourselves from addiction, and believe it happens to other people, not us. We associate addiction with the kind of psychological vulnerability that might lead someone to make bad choices because the short-term benefit the substance offers in the form of pain relief or mood elevation outweighs the long-term harm it might cause. But for most of us on any given day, this is gratefully not a decision we are called to make.

What is digital and social media addiction?

That said, there is a new form of behavioural addiction that scrambles much of what we know about substance and behavioural addiction: digital media addiction. To be sure, it may seem improbable to consider your smartphone or social media use or your video gaming habit as addiction. We might humorously refer to our practice of checking Facebook frequently as evidence of “addiction,” but think that just a metaphor.

The fact is, digital media devices and social media platforms, among their other features and consequences, are also systems for dopamine delivery. They were engineered in part to be “sticky” technologies and invite our frequent use, and thereby move us to submit more data to them, to buy more apps, or be exposed to more ads while there.  Digital and social media are now recognized as capable of addicting us as surely as does tobacco or shopping.

The nature of digital and social media addiction is different than other substance and behavioural addictions, however. There are no legal restrictions, as there are with substances, limiting our use of digital and social media. There is no social stigma, as there is with spending our rent money on lottery tickets or viewing online porn, that might prevent us from playing Candy Crush incessantly on our smartphones or bingewatching Netflix long after we should have been in bed. There are no age-related constraints on their use, meaning toddlers play with iPads, and children and teens text and game a significant part of their day. We are regularly rewarded for being heavy users of such media, whether with “likes” and “followers” on Instagram, status as a talented player on games like Fortnite and World of Warcraft, or by a boss who marvels at our willingness to answer work emails at all hours. And unlike other substance and behavioural addictive cues, digital and social media are woven integrally into our everyday lives, making it difficult for us to avoid them.

Some statistics on digital and social media addiction and its implications illustrate the extent of the problem:

  • Most people check their smart device every 6 to 12 minutes, and anywhere from 80 to 150 times a day
  • The average user of a smartphone uses it for 145 minutes a day, and touches the screen  (swipes, taps, presses) some 2617 times a day
  • 59% of people admit to being dependent on social media sites
  • The average attention span of an American adult has fallen from 12 to 8 seconds between 2000 and 2013
  • Between 2006 and 2011, the average number of hours American families spend with each other dropped by one-third (26 to 18 hours a month)
  • Children 8-18 are on smart devices and TV over 50 hours a week 

To borrow a phrase from Sherry Turkle, a well-known author on technology use, we are increasingly “alone together.”

What are the addictive properties in digital and social media?

Adam Alter, author of a book on digital and social media addiction titled Irresistible, identifies the following six features of these media which lead to such startling statistics:

  • (1,2,3) Compelling goals that become more challenging over time, a sense of incremental progress and improvement, and tasks that become more difficult over time, as in many video games
  • (4) Unresolved tensions that demand resolution and compel our attention, e.g., Netflix show plot cliffhangers
  • (5) Compelling yet unpredictable feedback, e.g., “likes” in Facebook and Instagram
  • (6) Social affirmation and connection, e.g., Facebook friends, gaming partners in MMORPG games

The ultimate consequences of digital and social media addiction

Our attention is a finite and precious resource, one so valued that it’s inspired what is called the “attention economy.” Wealth is increasingly created on the basis of the number of people who are attracted to a given digital media ecosystem, such as Apple or Android, gameworld, or social media platform. Such wealth follows on number of apps we buy or in-app purchases we make, the amount of money we spend in purchasing game elements, and of far more concern, when we volunteer personal data as part of our ordinary use of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The trouble with such an attention economy was brought home in March 2018 with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, one where a U.S. data analytics firm acquired personal data from millions of Americans (and some Canadians) who answered a personality quiz on Facebook. Millions more who were merely “friends” with those who completed the quiz had their data taken too without their consent or knowledge. The data, illicitly gathered, was then used as part of the 2016 Trump campaign’s digital outreach efforts to identify supporters and target them with messages, and there might have also been made available to the Russian hackers who interfered in the presidential election.

Quite apart from the monetization and possible political exploitation of our attention, it remains that digital and social media addiction erode our capacity to give attention in our lives at large. Digital and social media encourage the kind of non-committal, grazing form of attention that is called “continuous partial attention.” This is a form of attention where, more and more, our minds engage with the world in quick and shallow form, and not in ways that lead to the deeper understanding that comes with sustained concentration.


There is a familiar phrase, “you are what you eat.” But where our minds are concerned, we are just as much what we attend to and give thus our minds and selves to. Insofar as addiction to smartphones, game systems, streaming and social media delivers us an endless supply of small doses of dopamine, they do so at the expense of our ability to know ourselves, have life-affirming social relationships, and address the world with the focus that world’s complexity requires of us.

Public awareness campaigns like “#Device-Free Dinner” and organizations like Time Well Spent that fight digital addiction, and apps to manage our digital and social media use like Forest and Checky, are part of the solution. But in the end, our wise use of these remarkable technologies, capable of amazing feats and great good, depends on our being cognizant that, as with any addictive substance or behaviour, we must weigh the short-term benefits against the potential long-term harm they might do.

Dr. David Black, associate professor, School of Communication and Culture