Appropriating very serious and meaningful terms as a way to describe fairly banal things isn’t new. Think of the person who says, “I haven’t eaten since lunch. I am literally starving and would kill for a burger.” They are not literally starving, nor would they actually kill for their food (we hope). For the most part, we accept this as part of our language, though it comes with a price. Exaggeration quickly becomes cliche, and cliche quickly becomes meaningless, divorced from any original intent. That’s why using the addiction line when it comes to our smartphones and other mobile tech is interesting.
On the one hand, scientists and psychologists are still debating whether or not someone can actually be chemically addicted to their smartphones. Right now, the consensus is leaning towards the conclusion that it isn’t actually a clinical addiction, but is instead a horrible fear of missing out, which is a phobia, and therefore a serious thing, but still different from addiction. For most other people, though, it is just habit.
Addiction is not habit. It can derive from habit, but it’s a serious and clinical thing. When we use terms like “addiction” to talk about smartphone habits, we rob the word of its power. However, not all is lost. Smartphones and modern tech might reinforce the casual use of language, but they also have the power to help us overcome real and serious addictions. There are now addiction apps and programs that can serve as a guide for people who are struggling, providing support for people when they need it. It’s modern tech working on one of the world’s oldest problems.
Understanding Addiction and Neuroplasticity
First, we have to try to make sense of addiction. When a person takes a drink or does a drug, or anything else that is immediately pleasurable, the brain releases a shot of dopamine, which is a chemical rush that makes you feel good. This isn’t because the brain is cool and likes to party – there are evolutionary reasons for this. We get “rewarded” by doing something that helps us perpetuate – eating good food, reproducing, finding shelter. Of course, humans being humans, we quickly found ways to manipulate the pleasure center artificially. We’ve been brewing alcohol for thousands of years and finding trippy plants for way longer.
When the pleasure center is triggered, it forms a new pathway in the brain, which remembers what you did to make yourself feel good. Many people try to intensify that feeling by doing more, which releases more dopamine, and makes the coming down that much harder. Eventually, this actually alters the chemistry of the brain. The brain starts to need more substances to produce enough dopamine to feel good again. This change also makes the crashes much worse. Eventually, people need the constant chemical stimulation just to avoid the hideous withdrawal – feeling good barely enters into the equation. The brain has become addicted.
As we see, though, that’s a matter of altering the brain chemistry, which was remarkably easy. Addiction comes about due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is its ability to remold and reform itself around different paths. This neuroplasticity can also be key to addiction treatment, as a brain that can learn a behavior can also unlearn it. That’s where mobile tech and addiction apps can come into play.
How Addiction Apps Can Augment Treatment
To be clear, no one is saying that if you or a loved one is struggling with a crippling addiction, all you need is to download an app. That dramatically underplays the problem and overstates the technological case. Getting professional help from a licensed and trained expert is the most important step.
But then there is the next day, and the day after that, and that’s where addiction apps can help. As we’ve talked about, health apps help us modify our behavior by comparison and encouragement. When we track our behavior, we’re more in tune with it and with our bodies, and so we act accordingly. It’s a similar process with addiction, and it is especially true because the addict is retraining their brain to survive without the help of a substance. It is a constant process – for many, it’s even a lifelong process.
Some of the top apps include One Day At A Time, 12 Steps, or Stop Drinking. These do a few different things. Some count days with you, helping you to keep constant track of your progress, which is important. Most, like 24 Hours a Day, offer prayers, meditation, and encouragement. You can click on the app when you feel tempted and it will be there with words of advice. This is no small thing. It’s like having a constant sponsor.
What happens here is that through this encouragement and modification, the addict is allowing their brain to reform and not have the same need. It might always be there – there is a lot about addiction we still don’t know and are still learning about. But it can be dulled and, hopefully, managed. That’s the great thing about having these apps. They are there for you, help you track your progress, connect you with people who care, and give you the support you need. They aren’t, and shouldn’t be, the sole source of succor, but they can be a wonderful augmentation.
You probably aren’t addicted to your smartphone. But for the actual addict, having it always by your side can be a beautiful thing.