Resisting the addiction discourse

This week I had a chat with journalist Angela Ranke that lead to some more chats with radio presenters who are interested in the discourses around ‘social media and addiction’. I did a post on my PhD blog a while back on this very topic, and these discussions I’ve been having recently are a good opportunity to reflect again on what’s going on here.

Social media can sometimes be engrossing, and we can even find ourselves habitually checking our Facebook or Twitter news feed. Does this mean we’re addicted? No. It might mean that we’re under-stimulated or bored or procrastinating or taking a quick mental break from whatever task (mundane or otherwise) that we’re working on. Or maybe we’re zoning out at the end of a day, and attending to the stuff that matters most to us – friends, family, or even ‘snooping’ on friends we are not that close to, but are still interested in.

Aside from talking about my own research with young people on Australia’s Gold Coast, another piece of research I like to trot out in these discussions is Brent Coker’s 2011 (p. 238) article on social media in the workplace. He explains that ‘workplace internet leisure browsing’, hitting up some Facebook or Twitter, for instance, can serve as an ‘unobtrusive interruption which enables restoration of mental capacity and fosters feelings of autonomy’. This has to be tempered, obviously – sitting on Facebook all day at work does not constitute an unobtrusive break. However, the central message here is that social media use is being managed strategically and in a generative way in workplaces. Blanket bans are problematic and unfortunate. On the flip side, of course, not doing what you are ‘supposed’ to be doing at work can still serve as a powerful mechanism for jamming the imperatives of corporate productivity, and I don’t want to erase that. I’m having flashbacks to that scene in the 1999 film Office Space (pre-Facebook!) where Peter (Ron Livingstone) is cleaning a fish at his desk. I couldn’t find a picture of that exact scene, but this one carries the same spirit.


As I did with the aforementioned post on my old PhD blog, I’m going to end this post with a quote from an interview with Sherry Turkle related to her 2011 book Alone Together. Like others, I’m critical of Turkle’s ‘zero-sum’ equation where if people are socialising online then they are forsaking a ‘more meaningful’ set of social interactions offline. Neither the zero-sum or the measure of meaningfulness argument are tenable, from where I’m sitting. However, I do think Turkle’s point on the addiction discourse, raised in the interview with Jenkins, is spot on:

No matter how much the metaphor of addiction may seem to fit our circumstance, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. It does not serve us well. To end addiction, you have to discard the substance. And we know that we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We are not going to “get rid” of social networking. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children. Addiction–with its one solution that we know we won’t use–makes us feel hopeless, passive.

We will find new paths, but a first step will surely be to not consider ourselves passive victims of a bad substance, but to acknowledge that in our use of networked technology, we have incurred some costs that we don’t want to pay. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything. As we consider all this, we will not find a “solution” or a simple answer. But we cannot assume that the life technology makes easy is how we want to live. There is time to make the corrections.

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