Faculty panel is skeptical about claims of technology addiction

Psychology professors gathered to discuss addiction recently. From left, Casey Cromwell, Eric Dubow, Harold Rosenberg, Joshua Grubbs, and Mike Zickar.

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

On Monday Adam Alter, the author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” will talk about his book, which has been the Common Read this year at Bowling Green State University.

A crisis, he believes, is at hand with many people, 50 percent even, becoming addicted to technology.

In anticipation of his talk, a panel of faculty from the Psychology Department was convened to discuss his thesis.

The members of the panel, moderated by department chair Michael Zickar know about addiction from the inside out.

Casey Cromwell is a biopsychologist, who has studied the chemical workings of addiction including time in the same lab discussed by Alter in his book.

Harold Rosenberg has treated people suffering from addiction and compulsion disorders.

Eric Dubow is a child psychologist who studies the impact of technology on children.

And Joshua Grubbs is “the porn guy,” though his work extends beyond studying porn to other compulsive behaviors including gambling.

“I tend to be a skeptic,” Grubbs said, of Alter’s theory that technology is designed to be addictive.

“I think we pathologize a lot of things that are very normal behaviors, and that there is money to be made from pathologizing normal behavior,” he said. 

The diagnosis of addiction has traditionally been restricted to those hooked on substances such as drugs and alcohol, not those linked to behaviors. Only recently has gambling been recognized as an addiction. 

In addition, the World Health Organization recognizes excessive gaming and compulsive sexual behaviors as impulse control disorders, not addictions.

“It’s important to define addiction correctly because if we’re not defining it correctly, we’re minimizing the struggles people who actually have addictions,” Grubbs said.

Cromwell said many of the experiments into the underlying mechanisms of addiction are done using animals. But behaviors like cell phone use or watching porn can’t be tested on animals.

Rosenberg noted that one characteristic of addiction is the simultaneous need to take a substance but not liking the outcome. This occurs when the addict’s tolerance for the drug develops. It’s an internal “tug of war.”

Cromwell said the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in this is “a little confusing,” and may not apply to the craving.

And Rosenberg wondered: “What are they addicted to the content or is it something about the device itself?”

“I actually think it’s quite specious to separate technology addiction from what you doing on our phone,” Grubbs said.

Because people overuse something doesn’t mean that it is addictive, Grubbs said. “Do some people use pornography so much it ruins their personal life?  Yes, I’ve treated those people.”

Then again in the 1990s, some people ruined their lives by compulsively collecting Beanie Babies. No one would say Beanie Babies, however, are addictive.

Whether technology is addictive or not, Dubow said, it clearly can prove to be a distraction in an educational setting.

Studies have shown that schools that ban the use of cell phones in class have seen an increase in their standardized test scores.

However, this becomes tricky as more teachers want to use internet resources in class, he said.

One school in a wealthy district that he works with has given all students lap tops. But for a district that can’t afford that, a cell phone may be the only way for students to access that educational material.

Dubow is conducting a study on cyberbullying. The responses showed that in the past year:  41 percent of students had someone making mean statements about them over the internet; 23 percent had people spreading rumors about them; 18 percent had threats made against them; and 7 percent had embarrassing photos of them posted.

“These things are happening,” he said. “These are concerns for children.”

Dubow also said that many studies do show causation between being exposed to violence and aggressive behavior. It doesn’t matter whether the exposure comes in the home, at school, in their peer group, or through the media.

At one point during the discussion, the audience, which was predominately students, was asked if they’d have a problem if they were forbidden from using their cell phones in class.  A few hands went up.

How many however had checked their phones during the panel discussion? The majority of people present, students or not, raised their hands.

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