Are we addicted to our iPads? Photograph: Getty Images
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Addiction: The key to all mythologies

From alcohol and cigarettes to Xboxes and iPads, modern life can be a minefield of addiction.

When people say they’re addicted to their iPads, they don’t mean addicted, addicted. In his recent book, The Fix (Collins, £18.99), Damian Thompson seeks to extend the meaning of the term, examining our loyalties to everything from iPads to Starbucks to 12-step groups.

While The Fix doesn’t actually upgrade our concept of addiction – there is no glossy new product – it does give the subject a symphonic treatment, with parts for experts and marketers, addicts and consumers. The findings of neuroscience supply the most plaintive high notes; its exotic vocabulary fails to account for our varied resistance to addiction, just as you’d expect it to fail to account for our varied capacity for love.

One contention of Thompson’s book is that prevailing norms can encourage the sense of being addicted. Had Nicotine Anonymous been formed in 1900, its members would have appeared paranoid. But in 2012 it seems obvious that smoking involves the addict’s cycle of anticipation, subversive thrill and shame. Overeaters are not merrily but morbidly obese these days, and a contemporary Marquis de Sade could have met Michael Douglas at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting.

The distinction between normal and abnormal behaviour is not only changeable through time but questionable in essence. As Charlie Citrine says in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift: “Once you had read Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, you knew everyday life was psychopathology.” Both Freud and Jung derived their descriptions of “normal” character from the observation of mental illness.

Take obsessive compulsive disorder. The belief of the person who crosses their fingers before a job interview, just like that of a person who relocks a door 60 times to feel calm, is that it’s possible to control the unknowable with magic. The difference is supplied by the range of application. Similarly, some of us have gone shoe-shopping when what we wanted was love – which required us to reason like addicts. On my way to psychotherapy college, I once chatted with a guy who slept rough. “This,” he explained, raising a can of nuclear brew, “is not a drink problem, it is a drink solution.” But to what? The motley bunch of issues that psychiatrists assemble as “addictive tendencies” are ready-made to greet addiction as a ready-made panacea. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution – and the addict’s behaviour continues to replicate the formula like spirals of manky DNA.

All addictions arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack – of heroin, vodka, or new shoes. An addict tries to get “clean”, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.

But heroin is physically addictive, while shoes, surely, are not. The distinction between substance addiction and “process”, or behavioural, addiction might be less tidy than the categories imply. In a process addiction – to sex, for example – a person may well be addicted to the biochemicals she shoots up in the privacy of her own body. The biochemical element in exercise addiction is accepted. Why not in serially unrequited love affairs?

Consumer addiction has required a deep-rooted aetiology. Technology and muffins are now “irresistible”, not only because they are designed to be derangingly cool or delicious but also because we are all more susceptible to the kind of thinking it once took an old-fashioned traumatic childhood to initiate.

The psychiatric term for narcissistic traits developed in adulthood is “ASN” – “Acquired Situational Narcissism”. We recognise it without the fancy definition: raging pop stars who asked for white roses but were damn well given pink, or the supermodel who whops a stern flight attendant in the eye. It’s unlikely that all of these people had abusive parents; more plausible that this is what celebrity can do to personality.

Should fame prove elusive, the delusion that everyone “hearts” you can now be fuelled by Facebook, blogging and Twitter. If only this were a mere 15-minute experience. Even if you don’t semi-religiously pimp up your profile, you can distort your psyche by other means. In the days when wrinkles formed and richly deserved fat could not be suctioned out in your lunch hour, people knew their mortal limitations by looking in the mirror.

Now we live in a time of purchasable miracles – Fat-free! Carb-blocking! Age-reversing! – that diminish our acceptance of ageing, illness and death. Even our workouts are subtly exalted. We are “training”, apparently – but for what? Jennifer Aniston probably had no idea she was endorsing the narcissistic defence of our times when the phrase “because I’m worth it” sprang from her honey-sweet lips.

Once, during the agonies of a slow download, a friend referred to the spinning-wheel Apple icon, which signifies a technical hitch, as “the wheel of death”. When an Xbox crashes, gamers refer to the warning ring around the on/off switch as the “red ring of death”. There’s an existential theme here: what if the download or the game never restarts? Strong-hearted Buddhist monks cruise an analogous mental purgatory every day before breakfast, and a stray pulse of enlightenment has led some western psychiatrists to think meditation may help treat our “pandemic” of mental “disorders”.

For those deprived of a neat diagnosis, meditation can make train delays, or a tardy side order, seem much less injurious to the heart. The Buddhist view of patience as a virtue might be stated like this: every mochaccino you do not send back in anger for a fairer share of foam will gentle your relationship with death.

Marketing has always dealt in wish-fulfillment but it now offers eerily deep reassurances. Of its iCloud, Apple says: “This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic and effortless.” This isn’t a response to need, it’s a drip-drip sedation of angst. How have consumers allowed Apple to feel both appointed and required to offer this? The answer may be familiar. Anyone who believes that anything “should” seem “automatic and effortless” will have a hard time living – and dying. But they will consistently purchase technology. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution.

Our relationship with technology firms may have an impact on evolution, because what we are encouraging is a survival of the weakest. Those of us who can tell the difference between an online relationship and a real one, those who are not interested in spending their days off finessing their software are, increasingly, seen as oddballs or kooks.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad depicts the future of affectionate interfacing: “He hadn’t seen or spoken to Lulu since their meeting three weeks ago; she was a person who lived in his pocket.” Alex and Lulu communicate via text, which they abbreviate as “T”. After relaying to Lulu his childish response at the sight of a rising skyscraper – “up gOs th bldg” – Alex remarks “how easily baby talk fitted itself into the crawl space of a T.”

Novelists have long held this broader, scarier view of addictive behaviour. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published in 1874, portrays a workaholic in the form of Casaubon, who neglects his marriage in order to squint in libraries. The toil of writing his “Key to All Mythologies” (an excellent shorthand for any addictive object) is more compelling – and less demanding – than the charms of his youthful wife.

Most novels are, in this expanded sense, about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties. The character either cheats himself to a bitter or bitter-sweet end, or reforms, according to the author’s sensibility.

Jane Austen’s heroine Emma lived in 19th-century England, where well-to-do women were conditioned to addictive thinking on the subject of love. Emma’s struggle to attain self-knowledge is marred by “a disposition to think a little too well of herself”, and demoralised by a society that marketed trinkets, bonnets and red-coats as the proper objects of female concern. Emma’s friends needed husbands then in the way some of us need mobile phones now: in order to feel that they existed.

In F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Jay Gatsby’s desire to win back his ex-girlfriend Daisy, a goal of religious significance to him, turns his criminal activities into acts of supplication. Attempting to prove his piety to Daisy he displays the wealth it has generated: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green . . .”

It is a gorgeous evocation of narcissism; Gatsby literally calls attention to his colourful surface. And Daisy sobs to see it, not because she understands Gatsby’s impoverishment but because she is overwhelmed to learn she is a goddess. Hollywood actors ought to scroll their fan sites with the same degree of amazement. Fitzgerald has Gatsby die off-stage, face down in a swimming pool, as would have befitted poor Narcissus himself.

It is very disappointing that, as Thompson points out, the reasons for addictive behaviour are so hard to quantify. But it’s not surprising. Their discovery requires a highly trained and peculiarly sensitive human mind. A live brain scan is too primitive an instrument.

Talitha Stevenson is a psychotherapist and writer

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.