What’s in a word? The discussion around tech and addiction

In the midst of increasing concerns around our relationship with screens, some academics and scientists are crying foul. They argue that the debate has gone too far, because media and commentators regularly use the word ‘addiction’ to describe people’s relationship with their devices. This, some say, is unwarranted. It doesn’t fit the definition of the word and isn’t supported by scientific evidence around screen use, they argue.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s “Inside Science”, focused around addiction and the Science Gallery’s new ‘Hooked’ exhibition, it was noted that in the case of the existence of digital addiction “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”. A comparison was made with gambling addiction (or, pathological and problem gambling) – a problem long before it was classified as a behavioral addiction. But should this discussion really about that scientific proof and the academic or formal use of the word ‘addiction’?

Many freely refer to themselves or their friends as ‘addicted’ to their phones. It has long been common to hear people refer to the idea of losing their phone (or even leaving it at home) as having their ‘arm cut off’. That’s not a description of a random thing, but something many people feel they instinctively need.

I hear parents tell me about teenagers who say they want to stop using a game or social media, but can’t. That seems to be a first step towards quite an intense need. Does that mean they’re addicted? It depends on how you define the word.

Like all language, this is a word that has evolved. People state they are ‘addicted’ to a series on Netflix, but nobody believes that this equates to a need for treatment. In fact, the use of the word in this way may show the word isn’t quite enough to describe some of our dependency on our digital devices.

Personally, I think language matters greatly – but I also accept that the meaning of words change. Perhaps there’s not a clinical definition for ‘digital addiction’, but that doesn’t mean that we all have to be careful to call it ‘dependency’. The meaning of the word has evolved.





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