Are Digital Overuse Problems Habits or Addictions?

Does it matter if your digital habit is just that: a habit and not an addiction?

Posted Aug 14, 2019

Governments around the world are beginning to talk about introducing legislation to tackle what they perceive to be a problem with the negative effects of excessive or inappropriate use of digital technology. For example, the SMART Act1 has been introduced to the Senate in the U.S., and penalties for digital media firms, who fail to tackle under-age use of their technology products, have been mooted by the UK Government.2  However, these suggestions have been met with the criticism that such legislation is not timely, due to the current lack of knowledge regarding the underlying nature of the problems associated with digital usage1. In particular, critics suggest that, as we do not know whether this is an addiction or a habit, we should delay any such legislation.

The SMART Act, among other things, proposes that social media companies should have to limit the use of social media to 30 minutes, for each platform, for each person. Anyone wishing to have more time online than this would have to ‘opt in’ to a removal of the limit.  In part, this is based on Senator Hawley’s view that: “Addiction is what these social media companies are selling. Social media is designed to exploit human psychology and brain physiology. Sen. Hawley's Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act would put an end to this business model of addiction.1 In the UK, the Government is considering giving the broadcasting overseer, Ofcom, powers to investigate and fine digital technology companies if they fail to protect younger people from viewing inappropriate digital content.  This move is not based on any particular view of the nature of the problem. However, leaving aside the issue of whether legislation will work, what are some critics of these bills, and the SMART Act, in particular, worried about?

Critics of the SMART Act have suggested that the premise of the bill, that technology companies have embraced an ‘addiction model of business,’ is based on empirically-shaky foundations. For example, Dr. Meshi says: “I think it's a little too early to take [legislative] action like this...There's still disagreement in the academic community on whether to call this phenomenon an ‘addiction.’"1  Similarly, Dr. Turel asks: “Can we equate excessive use of social media, which undeniably exists, to an addiction?...there are, importantly, also many differences...So, in that sense, the bill tackles a problem that is not yet well defined."1 These points are well made; that is, as the bill suggests that digital overuse problems are based on addiction, and they may not be addictions, should we support it?

Leaving aside the huge amount of evidence of an association between health problems and the excessive and inappropriate use of digital platforms,3 the key question is, of course, does it matter if excessive digital use is not an addiction?  Critics of the bill appear to suggest that a ‘mere habit’ is not so troubling.  Is there evidence to support a view that, if it is a habit, this makes the problem less serious?  This is a view suggested by some psychotherapists: “One notable difference between habit and the disease of addiction is the amount of time and effort required to change the behavior.  Altering habits requires minimal effort, time, and attention.4 Whether this is true in all cases, or not, what we do not get with a habit is the craving (withdrawal) when we do not engage in the behavior – but does that really matter?

Leaving aside that there is evidence that, for some people, their usage of digital technology is driven by an addiction – they suffer both psychological5 and physiological6 withdrawal on separation from the technology – it is true to say that the strength of any digital addiction, and the degree to which it might affect the entire population, are not known.  However, when we examine the literature carefully, it turns out that it is not always possible to separate a ‘mere habit’ from an ‘addiction’.  Any habit starts out as an action directed at some goal.  If this action is performed over and over again, it may become encoded as a single unit (a chunk of behavior), which is then ‘run-off’ automatically, unthinkingly, in reaction to particular situations.  It is not a conscious decision to perform a habit,7 and it takes little effort of thought.  Although this can be a good thing for some behaviors, in some situations where conscious processing may take vital time, it is difficult to see how this argument regarding the benefits of habits could be applied to social media use.

If we study the above description of a ‘habit’, just for a second – ‘unconscious’, ‘automatic’, and ‘unthinking’, jump out as being particularly alarming elements.  These aspects of a habit are not necessarily associated with an addiction.  If we engage in a behavior that is habitual, we are not in control of our actions, and we do not know why we are performing those actions – these are mechanistically-driven by the environment to which we are exposed.  To this extent, there are aspects of a habit, which are not necessarily shown by an addiction (although they can be), that could make digital problems worse.

If we are not in control of our behaviors when we are engaged, by habit, with social media, then this has to be a bad thing – even leaving aside the problems that this poses for freedom (and notice, in discussing this criticism, there is a lot of ‘leaving asides’ going on).  I have previously noted the finding that people cannot tell how long they have been engaged with social media,8 and this fits with the notion of digital use being an ingrained, unconscious habit.  Whether extreme digital users can tell how long they have been engaged with social media is not known, but we do know that their anxiety levels tell them how long they have not been engaged with social media.9  There seems to be good evidence that both habit and addiction may be involved in digital technology overuse.

The results of a laboratory study using rats throw into sharp contrast the problems of getting rid of a habit.10  In this experiment, rats were trained to press one manipulandum, for one sort of food, and another manipulandum, for another sort of food.  When pressing was established, the rats were taken into another context, and one of the foods was paired with a mild poison that made the rat sick for a while.  The rats were then placed back into the original chamber and were again faced with the two manipulanda.  If the rats knew that one source of food was bad and that one manipulandum led to that food, they should not press that manipulandum, but they should happily continue pressing the other.  This is what happened – except when the response was over-trained – when it had become a habit, even the poisoned food at the end of the response was not enough to stop the rats from pressing that lever.  They were no longer performing a conscious goal-directed action, but this was now a stimulus-driven habit.  This is termed ‘behavioral autonomy’7 – where the behavior becomes uncoupled from its original goal.

What if the same happens with social media?  What if excessive use produces behavioral autonomy of digital use?  This would remove any purpose from the use of digital media – except for the use of digital media.  In essence, our usage is not under our voluntary control, and not driven by our own purposes.  This will increase our usage unnecessarily, and make us more susceptible to the harms that result from excessive usage.3,6 This may not be an ‘addiction’, as Senator Hawley claims, and, in that sense, his critics are correct.1 But the technology companies are still gaining from their users’ lack of voluntary control, and, in that sense, Senator Hawley is correct.

The SMART Act’s suggested mechanism of digital overuse may be incorrect for some people (perhaps), but the outcomes of their excessive digital use remain the same.  And worse, not only may we be habitual users, but habits are not always so easy to break; have you heard the saying: ‘there’s no telling him’?  Habit or addiction, for excessive users, technology companies are gaining from removing our freedom to act, by exploiting, deliberately or not, the ways in which our learning mechanisms operate.


1.      Bustle (1.8.19).  The SMART Act for social media wants to completely change how you use it.

2.      The Telegraph (11.8.19).  Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to be fined millions of pounds for showing toxic videos.

3.      Sampasa-Kanyinga, H., & Lewis, R. F. (2015).  Frequent use of social networking sites is associated with poor psychological functioning among children and adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18, 380-385.

4.      Chris Clancy.  Habit vs. Addiction: 4 questions to determine the difference.

5.      Reed, P., Romano, M., Re, F., Roaro, A., Osborne, L. A., Viganò, C., & Truzoli, R. (2017). Differential physiological changes following internet exposure in higher and lower problematic internet users. PLOS ONE, 12, e0178480.

6.      Romano, M., Osborne, L. A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2013).  Differential psychological impact of internet exposure on internet addicts. PLOS ONE, 8, e55162.

7.      Dickinson, A. (1985). Actions and habits: the development of behavioural autonomy. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B, Biological Sciences, 308, 67-78.

8.      Reed, P.  How the internet stops your brain telling time. Psychology Today.

9.      Romano, M., Roaro, A., Re, F., Osborne, L. A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2017). Problematic internet users' skin conductance and anxiety increase after exposure to the internet. Addictive Behaviors, 75, 70-74.

10.  Adams, C.D. (1982).  Variations in the sensitivity of instrumental responding to reinforcer devaluation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 34B, 77-98.