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Screen Addiction: What Are We Looking For?

How sirens of technology lure us and make us forget our ordinary commitments.

Some years ago, I went to an art gallery in New Orleans where a featured artist had reproduced several of the world’s great paintings. In each case, the rendering mimicked the original except that now the subjects in question—think of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Munch’s screamer, and Manet’s picnickers on the grass—were attached to, indeed preoccupied with, their cell phones.

At the time, viewers found the paintings to be amusing but also a little disconcerting. At its best, art makes people reconsider the character of their own existence. This did that. Would anyone, or so I mused, want electronic devices invading the more significant moments of life?

Deeper into the 21st century, I think the paintings would be interpreted as silly, just comic takes on how the world has changed. In classic works of art, the subjects are captured, dreamlike, in the circumstances of an endless – perhaps eternal - present. How lucky we moderns are to transcend the constraints of place and time. At the touch of a button, we can be far away – and out of grasp of those who surround us. Viva electronica.

Of course, most of us are able to acknowledge that people—or at least other people—can get over-involved with their devices. Observe any waiting line, however short. How many in the queue are preoccupied electronically, even when they are in the company of others they know? How many have trouble ending that communication when they reach the front of that line? Go to a fast-food restaurant and note the number of parents who are paying more attention to their phones than to their children. Look beside you at a traffic stop and watch the driver in the next lane. Is he or she texting? Peep into a classroom to see students at the back of the room furiously fiddling with something in their laps (please let it be their phones). It’s 2:30 AM and the light is still on in Junior’s bedroom. What is he doing in there? Sis tripped on the sidewalk the other day and skinned her knee. What was she staring at that so distracted her?

We know well enough the answers to such questions. Modern people have come to believe that the world “out there” is somehow more interesting than the daily here-and-now. Our electronic accounts are effectively passports to places where exciting information and stirring imagery reside. Even relationships at-a-distance (my texting or instant-messaging Bill or Betty) seem somehow better than the plodding, often entrapping conversations before us (talking to a fully present Bill or Betty). In the electronic world, we control the pattern and pace of communication. In an instant, we can declare the matter finished and move on to other, presumably more interesting matters.

How does this surfing (odd imagery that) work? Thirty seconds ago, our thoroughly modern person finished reading something from their friend Susan. Now they are shopping for a sweater online. In just a bit, they will look at some Facebook updates, just to see what’s going on. What’s the weather today in some country they visited once? How’s that stock they bought doing? Are there any new photos of cute cats? All this without moving from one’s chair. Isn’t life grand!

One can celebrate these wondrous abilities to disconnect and reconnect at the touch of a button. It can be claimed, and with justice, that people’s circle of connections —indeed, the things they know “of” and “about”—is broader than ever. An open informational system is said to be the enemy of parochialism, at best of tyranny. And much of that openness entails self-made choices about the matters perused.

But is our Internet world only about the acts of self-management we call freedom? Does it tip us out-of-control as quickly as it valorizes our self-determination? Some of us have learned the hard way to be wary of our cravings for alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, salt, and junk food of every description. We know something of the tragedies associated with dependency on prescription and non-prescription drugs. Is there also a “junk culture” that constitutes a key portion of the Internet, a half-real/half-fantasy realm that lures us in, entrances us, and holds us against our better natures?

I’m referring here to some well-known activities, again easier to attribute to other people than to ourselves. How much visiting of social media sites is truly productive (psychologists say we have a Fear Of Missing Out)? Can we really justify online shopping, for hours at a time? How about internet gambling - or pornography? Perhaps we’ve cultivated an online romantic relationship with someone unknown to our spouse or partner. It’s exciting surely, but is it really what we want to be doing? Include here video games, especially those massive multi-player games where one competes (and forms alliances) with people from around the world. We’ve all heard stories about kids who can’t stop playing these games, who pee in a bottle so they won’t have to leave their stations. There are camps where program leaders try to detoxify those who lose contact with the non-Internet world. South Korea and China have their “Cinderella” laws that prohibit children from playing deep into the night.

Most of us, I suspect, would justify our own choices in these matters. Such pursuits are exciting or “fun.” It’s important, or so we argue, for us to keep up with our friends and show them our support, even if the term “friendship” now applies to people we went to high school with forty years ago and might otherwise have forgotten, business associates, random church and club members, or just someone that might be useful to us later. And what’s the harm of online shopping? It’s useful – and economically rational – to get the best deal, wherever that may be found. Gambling and pornography may not appeal to starchier types, but they add a rowdy, Vegas-style sensibility to otherwise staid lives. Likewise, video games have their staunch defenders, who claim they teach logical calculation, emotion-management, hand-eye coordination, resource-allocation, alliance-building, and other skills pertinent to competitive, task-oriented societies.

Surely, or so the thinking goes, electronic endeavors are like drinking, smoking, and all the other activities listed above. Children – and perhaps the criminally insane - should have some regulations. Society should acknowledge the dangers of certain “dark sites,” which present ideas and images so pernicious that no person should have access to them. Allow the rest of us our indulgences, even if these contradict the standards most would regard as right and proper. Adults, with a little help from family and friends, should monitor their own behaviors, even if those adults occasionally go off the rails. The litany moves to its stirring conclusion: Such is the cost of living in a “free” society.

The character of that freedom has been the subject of many essays in this series. Most of us think that freedom refers to our ability to do what we want when we want without the interference of others. Usually, we disregard the implications of that ability: that other people make our exploits possible and, just as importantly, are affected by the choices we make. Whatever freedoms we have are embedded in society; they do not stand not apart from it.

But even if we restrict freedom to its negative meaning (that other people shouldn’t interfere with our choices), there are problems with the prosecution of our own happiness. Some of our desires are clearly “needs” (food, water, shelter and so forth). We cannot survive without their satisfaction. Once they’ve been met, we feel comforted, at least until physiological imbalances cause them to resurface in our consciousness. But other desires – like “wants,” “urges,” or “ambitions” – are less clearly motivated or conditioned. We feel these desires, often quite strongly. Be clear, however, that we could exist without their being addressed. Moreover, our quests to satisfy them are not entirely successful. Oftentimes, we feel the need to address them again, sometimes in just a few minutes.

All this is just a way of saying that our vaunted choice-making is conditioned by factors that we do not understand clearly. Needs, I emphasize, are physiological affairs. Wants, urges, and ambitions are more complicated. Human beings, as Karl Marx once argued, even comprehend that elemental need food as much more than mere sustenance. We humans want food of a certain sort, done in a certain way. We may even declare this “necessary.” What this means is that many of our desires are social and cultural as well as physical matters. And the meeting point for these sometimes conflicting impulses is the psyche.

Do we “need” to play video games until all hours of the night, visit social media sites endlessly, shop ‘til we drop, gamble recklessly, and so forth? We may feel compelled to do so, even as we reject the idea of compulsion. Instead, we acknowledge this desire as an itch or yearning, a restless yen to stop doing our ordinary activities and do this instead. A few moments on-line is harmless enough, or so we tell ourselves. Minutes – or hours – later finds us paralyzed before the screen. We could stop if we chose. But we don’t “want” to.

Should this sense of urgency be termed “addiction”? Like most things in life, our feelings of dependency exist by degrees. Our addictions to alcohol or other drugs may be profoundly physiological conditions, with terrible withdrawal effects. Other commitments – like our desire to be online as much as possible – are perhaps more psychological in character, though they too are fed by biochemical processes.

Many writers have stressed the parallels between online compulsion and physical addiction. Some studies using brain imaging technology indicate that too much internet activity produces changes in the structure and functioning of the brain, including alternations in both white and gray matter and in cortical thickness. Others have stressed the uses of screen activity to boost dopamine or adrenaline levels excessively. When the session is over and the levels drop, there are strong desires to begin again. Together, these changes mean reductions in impulse control and emotional processing. Under the worst circumstances, the subject feels anxious or depressed until the activity – now the quasi-normal state of affairs – begins again.

Neuroscientists tell us that the brain is an extremely complicated organ that combines mechanical, biochemical, and electrical processes. It produces its own chemicals to support the internal functioning of its neural circuitry and to reward various, consciously directed activities. Some of these chemicals, like the endocannabinoids, produce feelings of pleasure. Others, like dopamine and adrenaline, embolden and give energy. Endorphins mask feelings of pain during difficult endeavors. Goal-oriented activity, especially when it involves high levels of exertion and tension-producing challenge, promotes the secretion of these mood-enhancers. In layperson’s terms, most of us “feel good” when we play. We enjoy both the process and the goal-attainment stage of that activity. Some of us (and especially, little children) have difficulty stopping.

As a student of human play, I am interested in how positive feelings arise in this activity. Play itself celebrates willful creativity. Players push themselves to try new behaviors and to make new things. They enjoy confronting self-imposed challenges and contemplating what they’ve accomplished at various points. They avoid behaviors that injure themselves or others. For the most part, the brain rewards these attempts to refine behavior and establish neural associations.

In my recent book, Play and the Human Condition, I explain that play is a “pathway of experience” featuring different stages of self-realization. There is a pre-play stage (a wanting to play) that is marked by appetitive “curiosity.” The play itself moves between acceptable levels of tension and challenge (usually termed “fun”) and temporary resolutions of this tension (in resting points of “exhilaration”). The play event may be composed of many episodes of this tension-creation and resolution. At the end, the player looks back at what has happened. At best, there is a sense of self-accomplishment I call “gratification.” Presumably, the brain doses us at each stage of these proceedings. We enjoyed what we just did; we make plans to do it again.

Games – as in video games – are a more complicated matter. Games usually involve pre-established frameworks for behavior. Often these are “cultural,” that is, publicly created and administered. When we play with others, we accept certain guidelines for play-spaces, timelines, equipment, team size and criteria, activity goals, behavioral rules, and so forth. In addition to coordinating behavior, rules help us stayed involved through the more difficult or boring portions of the game. That is, because of game rules we know that our “turn” to play a more conspicuous role will come soon. We will have chances to correct the unsatisfying maneuvers we just performed. Indeed, the game often has a defined end-point (perhaps “final score”) that is more important than the current standing of the players.

None of this is especially problematic. Indeed, most of us acknowledge the importance of pre-set frameworks for experience. Even when we play alone, we want to be able to tell other people how well or poorly we did. We want to compare our performance to the other times we’ve played. Game forms let us do that.

However, we should be clear that game forms also package and direct experience. They put a premium on certain kinds of behaviors (and skill sets) and declare certain goals (perhaps winning a “battle” or completing a “quest”) to be important. The best-known games are very well established – think of major sports, card and board games, or video games. To play them effectively, we must adapt ourselves to what is required. Our creativity, if such a term may be used, is defined quite narrowly. Sometimes, our expressions are just attempts at technical proficiency, resource management, and emotional resolve. We still have “fun” of course – but it is the game rather than we ourselves that provides the criteria for our feelings of accomplishment.

Most sports and games allow us to expend physical energy through bodily movements and gestures. Some computer activities, which coordinate on-screen occurrences with full-body movements, do this as well. In such cases, there is a rhythmic build-up and release of tension that resembles the ways people have played through the centuries.

But what if we played hunched over a computer screen and relied only on small hand movements? What if – as in some massive online games – our participation never resulted in some final outcome but was centered instead on a series of never-ending technical challenges? Add to this the prospect of playing with those we do not really know or perhaps don’t even see (at least in the fully-present sense of companionship that humans traditionally have found important)? Might we become reliant on the dancing images of backlit screens for our satisfactions?

In video games, we direct our own movements (and thus our avatar’s) through seemingly ever-changing scenarios. To that degree, we manage our own destinies. But most of the time, the standards for success and the declarations of this (“Great Job!” or profusions of points, balloons, and confetti) are imposed by the machine. It is in our nature to desire confirmations of success. “Well done … but you can do more,” or so the machines seem to say. They give us “Easter eggs” (in older games, literally) but they also egg us on.

How different are other on-screen activities from these games of hide-and-seek? The gambler wants confirmation that she has beaten the “unseen other” and has the dollar signs to prove. The turn of the card or wheel – which she cannot control – tells all. She feels the touch of Fate. The shopper wants the Golden Strike, knowing well that there are even better bargains still out there. The porn enthusiast has found images that once were exciting and now are boring. There must be better stuff out there. Keep looking! Even the on-line romanticist quests for responses he or she cannot control. What is it that the unseen partner will provide?

In such ways, many of us have grown dependent on the external, not entirely predictable stimulations of Internet sites (“emotional jolts,” they call them in Media Studies). We want the excitement of hunting (in some games, with a semi-automatic rifle in hand). We want confirmation we have made a kill. (“A few minutes ago, I learned that Karen has changed her ‘relationship status.’ I need to share this immediately.”) Part of this questing mentality depends on our own ingenuity, but the payoffs come from and through the system.

So we quest, like religionists, for the touch of Otherness. Surely, humans have done this through the ages. However, it may matter that we have turned to computer programs for our benefaction, or rather to the commercial interests that sponsor and coordinate these programs. It may also be noted that historically people have sought these comforts in public. By contrast, we slink away into the dark, to manage our screens in our own ways.

Some may argue that this rhetoric applies only to an earlier age of stationary “desktop” or “laptop” computers. But who would agree? What our mobile computer-phones lack in privacy and screen size they make up for inconstancy of access. These temptations go with us everywhere. We do not want to renounce them. We fiddle and fidget. We cannot resist peeking.

Does any of this matter? According to Kimberly Young and other researchers who have developed internet addiction scales, it certainly does. It matters when we lie to our loved ones about our involvements. It matters when we become restless and irritable when we have to leave our screens. Do we lose track of time when we are online, finding hours have passed? Does this activity keep us from doing other, more important things? Does it crowd into the routine moments of our lives, preoccupying us, making want to come back?

In the end, we must ask ourselves whether our on-screen exploits are attempts to make us feel, not “good” but “less bad.” If that’s the case, we need to alter our commitments. Life, so precious and short, must be safeguarded from technological sirens that promise much and give little. Screen entrancement is a pleasing distraction, but it is only that. We – and our loved ones – deserve better.


Thomas S. Henricks. Play and the Human Condition (Urbana, , IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015).