Spotlight on Addiction in an ‘Always On’ World

With Dry January now at an end, some might ask the question “What was that all about?”. For many, it was a partial detox following the festivities of December and the New Year. For some, it might prompt reflection on a person’s alcohol intake generally, and for others, perhaps a more serious look at what might appear to be a pattern developing that is causing concern around addiction.

But how do we define addiction? The NHS describe addiction as “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.”

We often associate addiction with alcohol and substance misuse, and problem gambling. Less obvious addictions, such as addictions to work, food, and shopping have been brought into media awareness over the past decade or more, and the latest, quite potent addiction to creep into world consciousness is that of an addiction to the internet, namely, social media sites.


On 28th August, The Guardian reported on a Chinese boot camp’s approach to internet addiction, and quoted a description of the problem as “electronic heroin”. You can find the report here.

So how do we become addicted? It is widely accepted that we often turn to alcohol, substances, and activities during stressful times because they can change the way that we feel. The behaviour becomes a problem when it develops into a habit that takes control over our impulses, and in turn has a negative affect on our health, finances and relationships. In psychodynamic theory, addictive behaviours would be classed as a defense mechanism; in short, a coping strategy or way to avoid or reduce anxieties, but of course the problems and feelings that we are trying to get away from in the moment, still remain.

Addiction to social media can fall into the same category, however, another interesting theory that could also apply here is that of “strokes”; a transactional analysis (TA) concept developed by Eric Berne. He described these strokes as “units of recognition”. Take Facebook for example; each time someone likes one of our posts, we have gained a unit of recognition. With social media inadvertently used as a tool for wide ranging positive and negative strokes, from flattery to bullying, is it any wonder that a large portion of our species in the western world is becoming addicted to their mobile devices?

Worldwide studies have shown strong links between the high use of social media and mental health issues such as: depression, anxiety and stress. The following video explains the far-reaching affects of social media in particular:

So what can we do if we think our internet use has become a problem?
1) Assess usage by keeping a log of the time spent using the internet / social media, to determine the level of the problem.
2) Limit usage to a particular time of the day where possible, (excluding work), and agree with yourself the length of time allowed.
3) Turn off notifications to prevent getting drawn in to checking out your social media at other times during the day
4) If you find the above difficult, you could remove yourself from social media sites altogether. Facebook now allows us to keep messenger even once we’ve closed our accounts; an option that can leave us with a little less ‘FOMO’ (watch the video!).

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