Common Sense Media Releases a Report on “Technology Addiction”

by Warren Buckleitner

First a disclosure. I am addicted to my mobile phone. If it’s not in my pocket, I feel out of touch, and can start feeling withdrawal symptoms that include worrying about my family.

But is this addiction? What, exactly, is “addiction?” 

Last month, the review and advocacy group Common Sense Media released a survey called Technology addiction: Concern, controversy, and finding balance. The report was based on phone survey that questioned 640 families. Not surprising, many of them feel like I do.

The paper began with some welcome caution that is appropriate when dealing a loaded term like “addiction.” I immediately appreciated the cautious, scholarly tone, e.g.,  “There is ongoing controversy over whether Internet addiction can be considered an addiction in the same sense as substance abuse or a behavioral disorder.”

Despite the rational start, things get strange around page 11. That’s when you are told that “addiction” might open a “mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway.”  It goes on… “Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.” Oh boy.

Why the switch from a scholarly to dramatic?  Perhaps because there are such different advisors to the report. Listed beside Howard Gardner and Ellen Wartella is Douglas Gentile, a vocal podcaster and known foe of the video game industry, with a track record of scaring parents and then selling the cure via book, lecture or video.

His contribution is amplified by Common Sense Media founder James Steyer, who recklessly links technology exposure to the worst possible addictive behaviors.

His quotes in the executive summary include “Kids and parents feel addicted to their mobile devices, that it is causing daily conflict in homes. Problematic media use can negatively affect children’s development and that multitasking can harm learning and performance. As a society we all have a responsibility to take media use and addiction seriously and make sure parents have the information to help them make smart choices for their families.”

It’s not surprising that Common Sense Media is listed as the go-to source for the solutions, and is quoted by the many news organizations that picked up on sexy title without looking any deeper than the executive summary. 

People will take what they want from this paper. For example, I’ll use the lit review and the scholarly caution in the first section. I’d highlight two important points:

1. The report calls for more research on children specifically. “So much of what we know about problematic media use and its repercussions is based on studies of adults and college students.” Very true.
2. The report did not consider the upsides of behaviors that could be classified as “addiction.”  For example, Serge Brin and Larry Page were technology “addicts.” A passion or addiction, for things like coding, communicating, writing or creating might also foster valuable skills.

Citation: Felt, L. J. & Robb, M. B. (2016). Technology addiction: Concern, controversy, and finding balance. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.

(Below: some of the news coverage from the report reinforces the fear, then suggests the solution).

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