Unhealthy Obsessions – Digital Addiction ~ History, Evolutions and Hooks

Article by: Scott Hall
History and Evolution:
            In the earliest of our digital worlds, many of us can recall passing by an arcade and hearing the beeps and dings of games that if released in today’s lingo, would be considered “viral” in nature such as Pac-Man or Asteroids.  Technology in our world in lots of instances is a welcome entity, for instance many of us use remote controls to change channels, or maybe a remote starter so that those cold winter mornings are less harsh upon entry into ones vehicle.  Many of us may even recall hearing in the news of “dot com” frenzies when the internet seemingly grew overnight and today exists with many features, sites and applications so we can enjoy it further.  Including phones that are “smart” and their associated applications, however, is it too much for some to handle?  Is the technology of our day and age strong enough in temptation or ease of use, to keep us sitting still staring blankly in front of a now flat screen monitor or waiting patiently for the “ding” that we got a text message?  Is it causing us to figuratively or literally co-exist within a digital world?  With our truth glasses in hand, we now go from the 3rd dimension into a 128 bit world and it’s evolving history to uncover a new level of addiction that has few clinics available for the rehabbing of those who are afflicted with this new age addiction.

            Historically, technology has brought us closer to each other by making it easier to communicate with our family and friends with inventions such as the telephone, the internet, messaging systems, video calling as well as other platforms.  Taking a moment to look at the earliest version of this miracle of modern technology known as the phone, we see many features that are familiar and might ask in jest, “I wonder what app I can find for that?”  The picture below shows all the familiar basics: an ear piece, a microphone to speak into and a rotary dial that allowed us to phone everyone whose numbers we knew.  The technology of that era was cutting edge and most anyone would love to have had a phone in their home, it was a mark of “prestige” that went unspoken; it meant “you are somebody”.   Take a moment to view the image and gaze upon one of the evolutions of the modern phone.

Within the confines of this piece of history is a pull out tray for note taking or a slim phone book, a crank on the right to help make that ever important call and even features a receiver that has the ear piece and microphone combined, rather than the traditional two piece from earlier models and includes a dandy key holder as a functional part of the product.  As with any historic “modern device” most of us would think this was a pain in the rear to have to keep up and needed something smaller that could include all this stuff in one convenient model.  Technology, Science and “demand” agree with your stance and today we have “smart phones”. They combine computing power with phone power while adding a few more bells and whistles and viola, the evolution of the phone becomes a full keyboard, a camera, a small computer, a messaging system and GPS system all in one that may look something like this:
Can anyone imagine having to crank up this device the same as its earliest counterpart?  It no doubt would not only deter sales from its manufacturer but would largely be rejected by our society in part due to it not being easy to use and probably would look a bit hilarious in design, not to mention we could not fit it into our pockets without some difficulty.  This evolution of technology is a wondrous and unapplauded industry, without their contribution, we would not have need to write laws against texting while driving or have the ability to capture events on the spot with a built in camera, or even be concerned with “big brother” monitoring our “private digital lives” something most of us would not think of normally if we had a basic phone in our hands, speaking traditionally of course, never mind “phone tapping” (James Bond reference).
            Technology of the afore mentioned type would not be possible in combination had it not been for the evolution of the computer, a device that in its earliest forms only functioned for either word processing or adding complex computations with ease and with it leaving behind the abacus and pad and paper we all loved in the days of long division.  Rolling back the clock of time to some 35 years or so in the past in our historic look of computers, we see an unspoken revolutionary giant, enter the “Altair 8800” the world’s first “personal” computer.
In 1975 this computer probably is the literal and figurative start to a technology explosion within our own country.  When this computer first appeared on the scene, a magazine known as “Popular Electronics” made the announcement that the large mainframes that persons had known to fill up large buildings was now in a personal form and for just $395 to $498 dollars anyone could own it (by today’s pricing this would be in the range of $2,000), either unassembled or preassembled but most importantly, it would be your very own personal computer (Technology in Action, 7th Edition).  Two men in particular were very interested in this piece of history, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, both of these gentlemen wrote a compiling program (translating commands into computer talk) that they would later convince its conceiver to purchase, effectively launching Microsoft.  A neat history for something that evolved from the above picture to this:
The earliest forms and fascinations with the personal computer influenced and called persons such as Bill Gates, Steve Wozinak, Steve Jobs and several others into action.  Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Intel and others knew early on that the computing technology being brought into homes would increase revenues and help to make things more modern in context to many of life’s daily functions.  The world of commerce and citizen’s around the world were watching closely as soon names like IBM, Commodore and Radio Shack soon were selling their own line of personal computers and the personal computer to home race was set and ready to move forward, with fans and companies in tow to the improved versions that would soon be released, but not without a key feature, an operating system.
            The Operating System is essentially a series of commands or programs that tell the computer in total how to interact and what to do with the data being entered.  The first operating system was not developed by Bill Gate’s team now known for its “MS-DOS”, it was however developed by Steve Wozinak and introduced as just “DOS” and was primarily developed for Apple computers whose processors were of the Motorola genre and not of the Intel genre that was and is popular in most “PC’s”. DOS is an acronym for “Disk Operating System”.  The control program for microcomputers was developed by Gary Kidall and was specific to Intel’s 8080 chip design.  Bill Gates would later be hired by IBM to write an operating system for their own line, but that is an extensive history that we will leave to our readers to pursue.

Digital Addictions:
            Parents and citizens all over the world can relate to what happens to our kids when we ban them or forbid them to go on to platforms such as “Face Book” or forbid them to use the internet at all.  The blood drains from their heads, their hearts break and we hear, “that’s not fair” or “thanks for dooming my social life.”  While we may chuckle at the scene being presented, some kids (and some adults) indeed feel as though part of their lives have been removed, even though they will get to see many of those persons in person within their own schools, so what are they missing out on other than being able to type (text) their friends?  Simply put, they are missing out on an enigma that says the same thing as our earliest look into technology; you are “somebody”.  One can easily see how the evolution of computing has robbed some societies of the arcade where gaming systems that can also access the internet have brought Pac-Man munching into our living rooms while we voice chat with others who are munching or shooting things in their own world.  Is this a sense of brotherhood or comradery that is easy to obtain or is this robbing us of our ability to go outside and meet those same persons face to face while hovering over a quarter eating machine.
            Using our truth glasses in search of answers to our digital help need, we encounter Dr. Hilarie Cash, who wrote an article featuring a few parameters of Digital Addiction and runs one of the few “rehab” centers for this type of addiction.  In an online article (psychology today.com) Dr. Cash mentions that too much time in front of the screen can lead to depression.  In order to help us understand, the good doctor explains a key term called, “limbic resonance”.  It is the energy exchange between persons in a safe and caring relationship.  The interaction stimulates the release of chemicals in the limbic region of the brain, a thing that is necessary in our lives a sense of full emotional and physical well being.
            Thus the reason one can never be “stimulated” the same by an online presence is the absence of the closeness and close companionship that supports that stimulation and given enough exposure to the digital world, we may be consumed by depression just because other parameters that are needed are now missing.  When the Dr. was poised with the question of “wouldn’t a video camera help provide the physical sense” she responded in part with the answer depends in part on the person being asked, however, there is no real research that supports that even video interaction stimulates the limbic region the same way as personal interaction does.  Food for thought for those of us who seek the relationships “online”, without personal interaction your brain won’t be stimulated the same as just texting “hello I am a beautiful person full of personality who is either a mirror image of Barbie or Ken”, keeping in mind the anonymous ability the internet provides by allowing it’s users to put up any picture available or any “bling” we can muster to make us look more appealing.
            In short, in order for us to receive the full benefit in brain stimulus of interacting with someone, we need to see them face to face and while texting, pictures or even video may be supplementing our communications, it is in essence causing many to become home bodies who may or may not be suffocated and go into a depressive state by not receiving the acceptance wanted, psychologically speaking.  An interesting point when one considers the outreach of platforms such as LinkedIn or Face Book, being you can customize your “wall” and your photo’s, you can chat and even video chat with your friends or family, share professional experiences and links to “hot” stories or sensationalized headlines.  According to their own “motto”, “Face Book is a social utility that connects people with friends and others, who work, live and study around them”.  Without this utility, we would have to go to parks, say hi to our neighbors, and interact with persons direct at work and study in our local library without the worry of associating our online profiles with who we really are in person.  All of these entities are dying off as we carry the ability to do all of these things either in our phone or in our homes where we can sit, not spend any gasoline to travel and still get what we need without much effort, including conversation.  Evidence of digital addiction even exists in some treadmill machines that have Televisions built in to their product and can even allow you a simulated walk through an Italian countryside.  This author remembers when doing those things was called an “over seas vacation”.
            Believing and seeing that one has a behavioral addiction, such as video gaming or internet surfing is also covered by Dr. Cash, citing and asking in one of her articles, why is it so hard to believe.  According to the doctor in her article, many of us can relate to gambling or alcohol/drug addictions that cause people to behave in strange ways when they cannot or do not have their “fix” thus causing them to creatively think of ways to accomplish their high.  Much like one who “needs” a shot of alcohol or a pill to achieve their euphoria, the same receptors in our brains that give us that euphoric feeling also respond when we simply open up our favorite game or site.  The dopamine levels and brain receptors, according to study, react the similar to those with drug / alcohol addictions and with those who would rather sit for hours conquering the outlands of the world of war craft or just chat with their friends on a familiar platform it can become “not enough” and those persons are subject to spending more and more time on them, for their “fix” to be met and with games built in to those sites such as Farmville or the World of War Craft, our “fix” is available to us all the time.
            As the article unfolded, questions arose about needing a practical example of how or what this level of addiction can do to a person and Dr. Cash revealed a very good one:
            “Some years ago I got a call from a young woman who made an appointment to come in with her husband, saying he had a problem with gaming. It turned out that this man, only 24, had gotten a scholarship to an Ivy League university. In high school he gamed a little, but he was also a great student, an athlete, and socially popular. He was really the star of the school. When he got to the University he suddenly found himself the little fish in a big pond. Rather than dealing with his anxiety by trying his hardest to succeed, he distracted himself from his emotions (fear) by playing video games. When he found Everquest, a multiuser game played over the internet with many others, he became addicted. He stopped going to classes and rarely emerged from his room. Consequently, he failed out of the university pretty quickly. Next, he married his high school sweetheart and moved to Seattle where he found a job in the computer industry. He had made a commitment to his wife to never game again, since he was clearly an addict. He kept this promise for a year, but never got outside support for staying "sober". Instead, he did what so many addicts do: he believed he could do it alone, through sheer strength of will. But, it turned out that the addiction trumped his will-power and he returned to Everquest, only now he did it in secret. He went to extraordinary lengths to keep his secret, pretending to go to work, making up stories about his work day after he had been fired, paying their bills with credit cards, and so on. He kept up this charade for months, driving them into deep dept. His shame grew until he felt suicidal. That is the point at which he finally confessed to his wife what was going on and she found him help.”
            Gaming systems such as X-Box, Play Station, Nintendo are no strangers to online accounts or extra’s that allow their users to interact “online” with one another.  Games that feature competition fighting (Mortal Kombat) or games that feature graphic violence in war (Call of Duty) do come with the ability to interact with other persons playing the games, mostly with voice chat to help your “team” accomplish their goals or just stay in touch an effective measure if your team mates are hundreds of miles away, a deterrent if your bro is next door.  Massive Multi-Player Online games (MMO) also allow for the ability to chat with your team mates.  This author agrees that if we were to receive a phone call in the middle of a war scenario or while fighting medieval beasts with an hammer, it would be difficult to manage and stay alive while avoiding doom, however, other than hearing or saying some low level cursing about why you got shot, what does this platform serve other than another “prestigious” item so we can be “somebody” or the chance to increase a risk of blood clot from not moving around.  If it is the ability to chat with your friends while kicking tail at a game, why not break that addiction and invite them over, remember, Limbic Resonance or face to face interaction that makes us happy is a vital part of our overall well being.
            A pediatrician once said to me in context to raising our children, “Don’t let them watch too much television or spend too much time online, it tends to dull the mind.”  A curious statement that as this article was being researched came to the forefront of the mind’s eyes as well as the remembrance of my own parents reminding me not to sit too close to the TV. According to an online article (CBS News.com, Jan 2012) a study released in the number 11 issue of PLoS One, researchers compared the brain scans of 17 men and women who had Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) to 16 persons who were not “addicted”.  The results of that research are supported by Doctor Deepak Chopra, who says the findings are valid.  The research reveals that there were more patterns of abnormal white matter in the addicts compared to those who were not.  White matter is where signals transmit to different parts of the brain within the brain itself and the research showed that those who had this addiction generally had those signals disrupted, affecting their decision making, emotions and self control.  Doctor Chopra stated:
            “Addictive behavior means that you’re compulsively repeating that behavior at the cost of everything in your life.  You have trouble sleeping; you miss out on relationships, social interactions, health and well-being.  Any addictive behavior will cause the same damage in the brain at the receptors as a drug will do.  The study is very valid.  Once there’s damage, then that perpetuates the behavior.  It becomes a vicious cycle.  The behavior damages the brain, the brain then reinforces the behavior and soon it spins out of control.”
            Referencing earlier to a scenario that was mentioned of a child or someone who is suddenly told they can no longer interact in those platforms will probably retort with resistance or some obtuse statement, this study and its associated parameters help to support the thinking within that scenario.  In the online article there is a four minute video to where the staff and doctor interact on some important points and questions, including the absence of cursive writing being taught within our schools.  The doctor pointed out that in order to break the cycles of where the addiction is affecting our lives, we must re-wire our own thinking and moderate the use and interaction, or simply self-discipline and control that is mindful.
            A point that is growing within our schools across the nation and globe where computers and technology are fitting in on nearly every level of education, including some online colleges that have came under close scrutiny.  These addictions are not just fueled by the demand from their users, but the manufacturers who continue to add and shrink our already multiple function devices into one that will someday transport us to work without a car, merely by pushing a button.  Food for thought, if we did not recognize that these devices were becoming somewhat intrusive, terms such as “hacker” or “crack berry” would not have evolved in the context that they have in both meaning and application, similar to going to the joint meant going to jail and not a party spot or where the drugs may be and as much as Mark Zuckerberg would like to think his Face Book platform is one that is relatively safe and leaves those defenses up to the user, we can all cite the cyber bullying suicides that sparked an outrage across a few regions. 
            In another article featured in the Huffington Post, (huffingtonpost.com, 2010) the author, Paul Lamb revealed that according to a Harvard study, roughly 5 to 10 percent of people online claim to be “web dependant” and if 80 million Americans are online, 12 million or so suffer from a mild form of this addiction. Taking a moment to think about Face Book who claims to have 100 million users, at least 5 to 10 million of them may suffer from IAD.  In comparison the numbers featured in the article show that 14 million Americans claim to have drinking problems and 8 million are alcoholics.  Staggering numbers in comparison and with centers featured earlier by Dr. Cash like “reSTART” there may be hope on the horizon for those persons who are Internet or “Web Dependant”.
            In all the studies that have been researched, the key seems to be moderation, same as any unhealthy obsession or a self discipline level that will allow us to “reprogram” our own brains into becoming productive again.  This in itself seems rather important to this author, who has been following several stories about the obesity problem in our very own country and causes me to think that if we could break a few of these cycles of addiction, a few may benefit from the walk or activity associated with it, including social interactions that are face to face, smelling the fresh air after a lawn has been mowed, a crackling hickory fireplace on a cool evening or maybe rather than rush out to buy the latest thing, show our families and friends what “yesterday” was like and why we should slow down our addiction levels.  Some of the sufferers of “unwanted” addiction may be business executives or important players within a company who at one point in time would get on a plane and enjoy the flight knowing that for a few moments in time, no one could reach them and today with the advent and invention of smarter phones and communication devices, we only allow those to be used prior to or after flights and allow those who need us to reach us, anywhere at any time.
            In conclusion, maybe Gordon Moore (Moore’s Law) was on to something when he predicted that the evolutionary rate of a Processor in the number of transistors that would be added as the item became more powerful would double every 18 months.  As time passes before our very eyes this principle that was stated in the 1970’s when Moore first introduced his theory, was actually present in all forms of technology and have since combined their uses into smaller more capable and easy to use items.  From phones and their accessories to net books or laptops that allow us wireless capability all of these items are the tools that fuel our addiction and with cooler and more functional gadgets evolving before our very eyes, it is no wonder Microsoft is releasing version 8 very soon, who else would help us to interact with our Smart Phones and growing demand for never leaving our home to go banking, getting food, seeing our family and friends. 
            A few basic questions that one should consider when debating whether or not technology and its uses are addicting:  Is it disrupting my social life outside of the use of the platform?  Is it causing me to neglect myself or my family?  Do I really need to be contacted anywhere or any time?  Is its use consuming the majority of my daily function delaying or postponing me from going out?  These are just a few of this author’s own questions and I am certain may fit the parameters of many lives.  If you know someone who may be an addict and you have exhausted all resources of your own in trying to help bring that person back to reality, be mindful that they may have a need for that addiction and that the key to breaking its grip may be simple friendship that is in person and genuine.

References and Further Readings Associated with Digital Addiction or IAD

Technology in Action, 7th Edition, Evans Martin and Poatsy, ISBN 10:0-13-509669-3


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