Overdosing on digital crack

South China Morning Post

Overdosing on virtual connections

Eric Stryson says people in modern societies like Hong Kong need to geta handle on reality as smartphone use increasingly turns to addiction

by Eric Stryson

A decade ago, all the talk was about the digital divide leaving behind millions of poor people. Today, that has been replaced by a modern drug of choice for the masses - digital crack.

Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg


Growing numbers of people are apparently addicted to electronic gadgets providing continuous, always-on media and communications that feed an insatiable desire for the next fix.

Digital crack works the same way as crack cocaine. Each time we see a new message or alert, the brain gets a "hit" of a neurotransmitter called dopamine offering a small, temporary feeling of pleasure. Smartphones now apparently produce the same dopamine-inducing pleasure response that crack cocaine does.

In Hong Kong, people on the streets walk around like zombies, staring down at their smartphones. Waiting for a lift, standing in a queue, or dining in restaurants, their gaze is fixed on their device.

Sadly, for many, the digital dopamine fix is more compelling than the outside world. Psychiatrists are now considering listing the condition as a full-blown disorder. China opened its first internet addiction treatment centres in 2004 and by 2009 had more than 300 of them.

Unchecked, technology will tear at the fabric of society. The onslaught of digital media will grow more intense as bandwidth increases. With more such "innovations", our loss of empathy will become more acute. We will witness the further atrophy of basic human skills like reading non-verbal behaviour. We risk losing the ability to communicate with each other in meaningful ways.

So, should society impose restraints? Surely primary school classrooms should be crack-free. This would result in greater concentration, learning and outcomes.

Clearly, the purveyors of more digital traffic - Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on - will press for more usage. Governments are unlikely to intervene because online traffic is assumed to be linked with economic activity and productivity, though also heavily infused with time-wasting.

In the short term, digital crack keeps the masses satiated, offering the illusion of social harmony. In the long run, it dissolves social connection. Will device manufacturers take the moral high road and build in automatic usage limits and disabling options, as has been done in televisions and children's games? Could controls be set on certain highly addictive applications?

Why not build in an app that counts the number of times the user reaches for the gadget each day, and then records the activity.

The situation will worsen if we as a society become more complacent about investing in our real-world surroundings. This starts with talking to others at the bus stop instead of mindlessly pressing buttons. Ironically, it is in our most advanced societies like Hong Kong where the problem seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.

Technology has been glorified to such a degree that we all believe it can only improve our lives. Steve Jobs has been lionised but only because we have not scrutinised our usage and how the apps really affect us. This is changing. Let us hope it keeps pace with the digital euphoria.