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Five FAQs About Digital Addiction

12/12/2016 16:10
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We have been doing research on the "addictive" usage of technology for a few years now. Together with my colleagues at the ESOTICS research group and as part of the Digital Addiction Research at Bournemouth University, I have also given over 15 talks to a range of audiences in different countries. We have made several controversial arguments, including introducing the term Digital Addiction itself. We have enjoyed every talk and the discussions which followed. We also found the critiques very interesting and a sign of a timely and thoughts provoking nature of this research. We started researching the topic out of curiosity (see some results Here) and, personally, to see how I can help my own "digital addiction". But then it got serious. We got calls from the public, such as parents asking for advice about kids playing games for too long and being overly attached to their social media profiles. We started to plan a professional information helpline. As a first step, I thought of compiling a set of questions we often get about Digital Addiction and attempts to answer them.

Q1. Is it (Digital Addiction) really an addiction?

Well, it depends on the metrics you use. It has been shown that it has the same symptoms as other behavioural addictions. This includes salience (preoccupation about the use), tolerance (a growing increase and diversification of usage to maintain satisfaction), mood modification (feeling better when using it), relapse (succeeding but only temporarily to stick to a regulated usage plan), withdrawal symptoms (feeling restless when unable to use it as usual), and conflict (having to reduce other activities and feeling bad or guilty for not doing them).

Q2. So what is it?

We have given a usage-centred definition of Digital Addiction. It denotes a usage style of digital devices and media characterized by being obsessive, compulsive, impulsive, excessive and hasty. A usage which is accompanied by (accompanied, not necessarily causing or caused by) negative life experiences such as distraction, fatigue, lack of sleep, neglect of other work, and sometimes physical harm such as eye strains or car accidents.

Q3. What would be the time limit to remain a non-addict technology user?

It is not only about time. It revolves around the symptoms described in Q1. A gamer may play the game for an hour and keep thinking of it the rest of the day. A Facebook user could be thinking of a post while trying to sleep and checking their mobiles from time to time during the night.

Q4. What could be a reason for Digital Addiction?

Addictive behaviours are sometimes, perhaps often, manifestations of deeper underlying issues. One could argue that such behaviours are attempts to avoid some profound issues but, in doing so, they cause further problems. Digital Addiction is not an exception. A person could achieve their ideal self (the persona they feel they ideally want to be) and ought self (the one their peers think they ought to be) in an online environment in various ways. They have the choice to customize their profile photo and interaction style in a more agile style in comparison to the "real" world. They may be having a range of such online personas in order to compensate, complement or enrich their "real" self. A relationship breakdown could make someone more dependent on their online presence to rebuild their social capital and image.

Q5. Whose responsibility is it?

Often, the responsibility is on the users themselves. However, we have argued that this should not mean an exemption of technology developers from practicing their duty of care. We can think of advanced machine intelligence and user modelling techniques which can facilitate the prediction and detection of whether a social network user is utilizing it in an addictive style or deviating from the limits and set of permitted interactions self-set by him or her. We could provide users with software that can analyse their mood and predict the need for a break, e.g. sentiment analysis of their emails, comments and voice messages. Unfortunately, very little is being done in this regard. We hear stories every now and then of selfie accidents and depression cases associated with the usage of social networks, but we still do not see much reaction from mainstream software and technology developers. This motivated us to advocate a policy change and work on methods to embed such duty of care and risk assessment in the practice of software and technology development.

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