To understand the widespread disease of digital addiction, we have to differentiate between behavioral and substance addictions. A substance addiction to alcohol or drugs (or any substance with psychoactive compounds) can directly change your brain chemistry, leading to a vicious dependency on a substance. Substance addiction was the only form of addiction considered until recent studies suggested otherwise. Appearing in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse was an important survey paper in 2010 that concludes, “growing evidence suggests that behavioral addictions resemble substance addictions in many domains.”
We have to, as a result of such research, reframe our understanding of addiction to include both behavioral and substance addiction. Psychologists give us a clearer representation of how addictions should be understood:
Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.
Yet to be clear, behavioral addictions are extremely moderate compared to strong chemical dependences people have for substances such as alcohol or drugs. Addictions to digital technology and substances are different. For example, if someone quits social media, they won’t suffer the same withdrawal symptoms as someone with a strong chemical dependency. Nevertheless, behavioral addictions are quite detrimental to your health and well-being.
Someone with a behavioral addiction will feel helpless when checking your social media is only a tap of the screen away. It’s just too hard to resist for most people. We are like a rabbit with a carrot dangling in front of it, we just can’t resist the urge to try and get it. As I mentioned, positive reinforcement and social approval are evolutionary behaviors that are hard to kick. So, checking how many likes you got on a Facebook post is like getting a hit from a drug, however, it’s not a substance we’re addicted to but rather a behavioral pattern.
We constantly check social media to see how we are faring in our “apparent” worth to others (most of whom you likely don’t know). We want to stay relevant and feel like we are needed by others. This seems to be a cup that is never full, it’s never capable of satisfying you completely. But we constantly post and then anxiously monitor our social media accounts awaiting likes and retweets, and sometimes they never come. As a result, social media is more about vanity metrics than anything else, as we lean into those behavioral tendencies of positive reinforcement and social approval which the social media networks are exploiting. We are addicted to this feedback loop. We are gambling every time we post, but we aren’t spending our money as we do with a slot machine, but instead our precious time and attention. The constancy of this feedback loop is dangerous for our health and sanity. It causes a lot of psychological problems that can threaten our life.
The Debt is Suicide
Suicide rates in general have increased a lot in recent years, where an estimated one million people worldwide die by suicide every year (in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased 60%). Especially with our youth. The main cause of suicide is mental illness, very commonly depression. And it’s no surprise that rates in depression and self-harm are all up and it seems that it is hard to categorically point to one reason. But we might be a little too kind in our assessment.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes the main culprit is social media. Haidt explained on Joe Rogan’s podcast that there is evidence of this with the exponential growth in major depressive episodes, psychological disorders, and nonfatal self-harm for young boys and girls, especially girls. The increase in rates are alarming. Haidt explains (for young people in America, Canada, and the UK) that the rates of depression and anxiety on average were fairly stable throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Haidt explains, “The percentage of kids aged 12 to 17 in America who met the criteria for having a major depressive episode… the rate for boys is around 5% and then around 2011 it starts going up and now it’s around 7%.”
This is a substantial increase since the graph (Figure 7.1) Haidt was explaining only goes up to 2016, so 2% in five years is worrisome. But this is nothing compared to the increase with girls. Haidt explains, “The line for girls starts off higher because girls have more mood disorders, more anxiety and depression. Boys have more antisocial behavior, alcoholism, crime and violence… Girls basically make themselves miserable, boys make other people miserable.”
He continues, “The girls’ rate is higher but it was stable from 2005 through 2010 and then right around 2011 and 2012 it starts going up, and it goes way up to the point where it goes up from about 12% to now about 20% of American teenage girls have had a major depressive episode in the last year, 1 in 5 [girls].”
Data from Higher Education Research Institute (Figure 7.2) asked college men and women, do you have a psychological disorder (depression, etc.)? For the people who answered yes, the rates from 2010 to 2012 were low when it was millennials (Gen Y/ Generation Y): college men were on average 2-3%, while college women were about 5-6%. But then as iGen (Gen Z/Generation Z born in 1995 and after) began arriving at college in 2013, the rates began to skyrocket. From 2012 to 2016 men went from 2-3% to 6% and women went from 5-6% to a staggering 15% in a space of only four years. By 2016, college is almost all iGen’ers. This is extremely concerning considering the future of our world.
But there is another alarming and more extreme statistic that Haidt produced on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The statistics for young people deliberately harming themselves, which can be failed attempts at suicide, are deeply concerning. For boys and young men there is no real change in rates of non-fatal self-harm (as depicted in the graph in Figure 7.3). For all age groups the line is fairly steady.
As for girls and young women admitted into hospital for deliberately harming themselves, there are some extremely concerning statistics (as depicted in the graph in Figure 7.4). Rates for millennial women aged 20-24 is up 17% from 2009 to 2015, which is alarming in itself. But the problems become really extreme with iGen’ers. We see a 62% increase of nonfatal self-harm with teenage girls aged 15-19. 62% from 2009 to 2015 is madness! Not to mention a statistic that shouldn’t even be a topic of conversation, and that is the young age group of 10-14-year-old girls. Since 2009 there has been an increase of 189%. This is just not normal to have girls in their pre-teens harming themselves. Both boys and girls have never had this level of depression and anxiety in recorded history. Young people should never have a level of anxiety and stress equal or greater than an adult. So why is this? Why are our young people suffering so much?
The only new phenomenon in this timeframe, from 2009- 2012, was the widespread use of social media as an application in smartphones. What else could these statistics be pointing to? Social media and the smartphone are the main culprits. And both are specifically affecting the wonderful women of the future (also men as well to a lesser degree). Haidt explains why girls specifically would suffer more from social media:
First look at the nature of aggression within the sexes. Boys’ bullying is physical. Boys are physically dominating and then the risk is that they’re going to get punched. So, you give everybody [boys] an iPhone, what do they do with it? Games and porn. They [boys] don’t use it to hurt each other… Girls are actually as aggressive as boys. There’s research from the eighties and nineties on this, if you include relational aggression girls don’t bully each other by threatening to punch each other in the face, girls bully each other by damaging the other girl’s social relationships, spreading rumors, spreading lies, spreading a doctored photograph, saying bad things, excluding them. It’s relational aggression. And so, it’s always been really hard to be a middle school student. It’s always been harder to be a middle school girl than a middle school boy. So, beginning around 2010 and 2011 we throw in this brand-new thing into the mix, “OK, girls, here’s this beautiful thing in your hand and here’s all these programs where you can damage anyone’s social relationships any time of the day or night with deniability from an anonymous account. Go at it girls!…” The nature of girls’ bullying is hyper charged by social media and smartphones.
Couple this with impossible beauty standards and the anxiety of being left out (which girls are extremely sensitive to), and you have a toxic recipe for psychological problems. This is all the result of behavioral addiction. And we have to be honest, there should be no reason why young people especially should be depressed, suffer from anxiety, or god forbid commit suicide. For this to happen there has to be something fundamentally wrong with society, and there is.
Our world hypnotically makes us believe that we should be “someone special” at all costs. Society itself is infected with the behaviors of positive reinforcement and social approval. As a result, our world promotes the idea of fame as a goal we should all chase. Television influenced this belief because the more eyeballs on you, the greater attention you attract and thus you have accomplished the goal of social approval. Your worth is apparently highly valuable. Social media has intensified this belief in fame at all costs. The “fame game” is the game being played on social media and we are gambling with our life.
We can all play social media lottery. But if you don’t win (meaning getting a lot of likes and attention) you’re a failure. This is not really true, but this is what the world would have you believe and social media promotes this illusion through vanity metrics. The way social media is designed influences people to seek fame as if it is important. Newsflash, fame is definitely not important and it shouldn’t even be valued. You are perfectly fine just the way you are without any need for social validation. You need to push back on that tendency or face the dire consequences. And it’s not only young girls who suffer from this, it’s all of us.
Book excerpt from Spiritual Freedom in the Digital Age by Jason Gregory © 2022 O Books.
Jason Gregory Podcast on Spiritual Freedom in the Digital Age
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