There is no doubt that most of us have become hooked on our electronic devices and that some people are gravely harmed by what develops into an unhealthy and uncontrollable attachment to them. The question is how best to understand, define, and deal with this. What does the term “addiction” mean and when is it a useful way of describing our passions and needs? We don’t consider ourselves addicted to our cars, TV’s, refrigerators, or air conditioners. Is attachment to the Internet fundamentally different?
The whole concept of behavioral addictions is highly controversial and has never heretofore been given any official status. There is a good reason for this. It is extremely difficult to distinguish the relatively few people who are really enslaved by shopping, sex, work, golf (or the Internet) from the huge army of those who are attached to these as pleasurable recreation. It should not be counted as a mental disorder and be called an “addiction” just because you really love an activity, get a lot of pleasure from it, and spend a lot of time doing it. To be considered “addicted,” you should be compulsively stuck doing something that is no longer fun, feels out of control, serves no useful purpose, and is certainly not worth the pain, costs, and harms. The unfavorable cost/benefit ratio should be pretty lopsided before mental disorder is considered.
We all do dumb things that offer short-term pleasures but cause bad long term consequences. It is not “addiction” whenever someone gets into trouble because of over-spending, golfing too much, or having repeated sexual indiscretions. That’s our human nature—derived from many millions of years of evolutionary experience where life was short, opportunities for pleasure rare, and the long term didn’t count for nearly as much as it does now. There is a risky slippery slope if we medicalize our pleasure seeking, irresponsible selves.
In 1970, Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to NASA scientist Dr. Stuhlinger about his research into a piloted mission to Mars asking him how he could suggest to spend money on such a project when there are children starving on Earth. Stuhlinger wrote back to her a thoughtful reply that’s worth reading, especially today.