So, what are we to make of a recently published alarmist report that claims that almost four out of 10 students are addicted to their smartphone?
The authors of the report claim that smartphone addiction causes serious sleeping problems and can be both a symptom and cause of mental health issues.
No doubt many young people spend far, far too much time messing around with their phones. But does it help to diagnose their bad habit as an addiction?
There are unquestionably many troubling aspects of smartphone usage among young people. But to diagnose these as ‘smartphone addiction’ is to mystify and also to medicalise what are, in effect, social and cultural problems facing society.
The addiction that I really worry about is society’s addiction to addiction. Let me explain.
There was a time when the label of addiction was confined to alcoholics and drug abusers. In recent decades, society has become so medicalised that it has embraced the unattractive idea of diagnosing normal bad habits and irresponsible behaviours as mental health problems and markers of an addiction. So, apparently, it is not only smartphones, but just about any technological gadget that can now be portrayed as addictive. We have gaming addiction, technology addiction, and Internet addiction disorder.
The addiction industry is flourishing throughout the western world. Clinics and self-help groups devoted to treating the recently discovered epidemic of sex addiction are doing a roaring trade. Celebrities gain publicity and headlines when pictures showing them check into a rehab clinic are flashed around the world.
Fashionable cultural norms are enthusiastic about medicalising people’s bad habits. Just about any character flaw can be recast as an addiction. Through the years, society has become accustomed to using terms such as workaholism, shopaholism, cybersex addiction, porn addiction, addiction to love, compulsive helping, exercise addiction, tanning and chocolate addiction.
People who pray too much can be diagnosed as suffering from addiction to religion and some of them may even have to be weaned off the ‘God Drug’! And if you are too focused on another person and feel too much affection for her or him, you may well be suffering from addiction to love.
Professionals promoting the ever-growing number of addictions insist that they are in the business of providing treatment and help. However, through medicalising every dimension of human behaviour, they turn us into patients and clients.
The real problem is the message that the diseasing of human behaviour sends to all of us. Take the fashionable label of an addictive personality. It encourages people to fatalistically acquiesce to their worst instincts. Addicts are portrayed as victims of circumstances beyond their control: they are literally counselled to accept powerlessness as the defining feature of their existence. Sexaholics Anonymous mimics the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step that a sex addict takes on the road to sexual sobriety is to admit that “we were powerless over lust.”
The promotion of the myth of human powerlessness has fostered a climate where addiction has become normalised. Addiction plays the role of a cultural fetish through which people’s potential to exercise moral independence is constantly called into question. The normalisation of this status of dependence is continually reinforced by constant exhortation to seek professional support. As a result, a new culture of dependency is constantly upheld and promoted.
In this context, the term “irresponsible” has undergone a radical transformation. People who cheat on their partners cannot be held accountable for their addiction.
The only grounds for condemning them as irresponsible is if they refuse to seek professional support. Perversely, those who attempt to deal with their problems through the exercise of self-control are castigated as being in denial and criticised for failing to come to terms with the gravity of their illness. Seeking help is mandatory, not an option, for those diagnosed as addicts.
Western society has become so hooked on addiction because it finds it difficult to imagine that people can be authors of their destiny. It is therefore drawn towards a fatalistic interpretation of human behaviour. The idea that people “can’t help it” or are “victims of their emotions” represents an abandonment of the standard of accountability associated with the ideal of human choice. Through its devaluation of the idea of moral independence, the medicalisation of bad habits diminishes the human capacity for self-determination.
The good news is that people can overcome their bad habits if they choose to do so. People who in one stage in their life became far too distracted by sex can learn to value and cultivate a durable intimate relationship. And there is also hope for university students clutching their smartphones in their bedroom. Even without the help of professional counsellors, they are likely to get bored with waiting for the next message.
Though it has become unfashionable to say this, a bit of self-control can go a long way towards limiting the negative consequences of your bad habits.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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