I can still see him clearly in my mind. He would come into math class looking like a zombie. His ability to produce any kind of results were practically nil. I eventually found out that he was trading precious hours of sleep to be on social media and Skype. His addicted routine saw him using the internet until 4 or 5 in the morning, every day, leaving an hour or two for sleep.
His addiction had caused him to be unable to focus or be productive in any way. Parents were at a loss as to what could be done. A few months into the school year, he stopped coming to school.
He was my most extreme case of internet addiction. Although most students don’t end up experiencing that degree of addiction, there is nonetheless a worrying trend that sees many students experience various levels of addiction, ranging from mild to excessive as was the case with the above student.
Technology is everywhere
The problem is that because of the prevalence of technology in our society, it is quite difficult to self-identify as an addict when it comes to using technology. Teens can spend 8 hours a day scrolling through their social media feeds and that seems very normal. They can do this for days and months without even questioning whether this form of entertainment is creating problems in other parts of their lives.
There was a point when smoking was seen as perfectly normal. Practically everyone was in the habit of smoking. In fact, doctors recommended smoking as a way to relax.
In 1994, before a US congressional committee, executives of cigarette companies lied by stating that cigarette smoking was not addictive. More than 20 years later, we now understand more clearly the destructive effects that nicotine addiction has on health.
Is a similar scenario being played out? Are executives of extremely powerful and influential communication and IT corporations lying by downplaying the dangers inherent in our technology?
Whether it be on a physical or psychological level, warning bells of the last decade have been downplayed or outright ridiculed. Are we to trust these executives who are profiting excessively from people’s addiction to their devices and services? It is only now that we are seeing more and more former employees of these corporations take the stage to tell us about the inherent dangers associated with social media platforms and how they are designed to create addictive behaviors – whistleblowers of some kind.
Is Internet addiction a real problem?
Just how prevalent is addiction to the internet? Statistics depend on the source – research subjects are classified in many different ways yielding quite different results. For example, Brandon Gaille has written a comprehensive article that shows alarming trends in addictive behavior to the internet:
His article offers 33 interesting internet addiction statistics. Well worth a read.
As anyone who has recovered from addiction knows, the recovery process is much more complex that simply recommending that a reduction of behavior take place. Stop drinking. Stop gambling. Stop surfing. None are easy.
One of the reasons why weaning ourselves off addictive behaviors is difficult is because we actually get something out of performing the problematic behavior. In her article ‘Internet Addiction Can Change The Brain As Dramatically As Drug Use’, Michelle Roses states that “The Internet, like any addiction, changes the brain by creating new neuropathways which replace other, healthier neuropathways for pleasure, or prevent someone from developing healthy neuropathways.”
The new neuropathways created as a result of addictive behaviors are strong connections that guarantee a quick dopamine release in the body – addicting us to the need to feel the resulting pleasure inherent in dopamine rushes. Some would allow their lives to be destroyed rather than forego these dopamine rushes.
Tommy Rosen, the creator of the Recovery 2.0 community, defines addiction as “any behavior you continue despite the fact that it brings negative consequences to your life”. He goes on to say that we continue the behavior not for the behavior itself but more for what we get from acting out the habitual behavior. And this whole dynamic is usually driven by the desire to avoid some sort of unconscious pain.
Ultimately, the deeper question is not to ask why the addiction but to ask what is the pain hiding behind the addiction. What are we trying to avoid? For many, it is an escape from boredom, from loneliness, from uncomfortable socializing, etc. Until we get to understand what we are avoiding from performing our addictive habitual behaviors, recovery can be a constant struggle.
Addicted: breaking the habit cycle
In all addictions, acknowledging the problem is the first step in the transformative process. Recognizing that one or more of our habits are causing problems can allow us to focus on changing those habits.
Our mind is divided into two parts: our conscious mind which makes up 5%, and our subconscious mind which accounts for 95% of our mental processing. Our habits are stored in the subconscious part, which essentially means that we are practically not aware of the habits that are stored there. We pretty much function on auto-pilot. But there are ways to tackle the habits we want to change.
There is what we call the habit cycle. It consists of a cue (what triggers the habitual behavior), a routine (the behavior carried out) and the reward (what one gets as a result of carrying out the behavior). Scientific research has shown that it is possible to change an addicted habit more successfully if we maintain the cue and the reward in place while focusing on changing the habit or the behavior that bridges the two.
Science has also shown that of the 95% subconscious part of our mind, 70% of what is stored there is negative – such as disempowering beliefs and habits. Imagine how one could change their life if they had the ability to reprogram much of their subconscious mind. That can be done through habit changes.
Learning how to change one’s habits may be the most important skill to learn – it sets you up for life.
We are in the midst of redefining what education is all about. Shouldn’t the ability to create behavioral change in oneself be an integral part of the new way of educating students?
If students are empowered in knowing how to create behavioral changes in their lives, then everything else can fall in place.