Digital Addiction: The end of free thought and will


Since the industrial revolution of 17 to 18th century in Europe, humans who freed themselves from slavery, feudalism, monarchy and alike, were worried about their dependence and overcoming by their own scientific creations.(1) Perhaps the first of these fears is demonstrated in the popular story of Dr. Frankenstein in 1818, who became a victim of the torment of his own creation.(2) Later on in many stories and films such as Space odyssey 2001, this fear warned us all! Although none of the fears of human clone, machines or robots did not materialize, humans became addicted first to televisions, then video games and most recently to computers, internet, social media, cell phones and alike. This dependency and addiction has not been limited to only a small group of scientists and creators, but has become an epidemic world wide, affecting ordinary people of all ages and totally out of control and a real concern in all lands. 


The free thought as expressed in philosophy for example by the popular phrase of Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, that was the foundation of humans’ modern achievements, has faded away.(3) Similarly the free will that was well expressed through existentialism, and well expressed for example by the popular phrase of Arthur Schopenhauer’s “The world is my representation.” has been totally lost. (4-5) Humans rapidly became slaves once again as in the remote past before the industrial revolution, but this time not to religion, or monarchies, landlords, or another human, but to their own byproducts. The computer that was initially created for fast computing, then as an information technology, soon was transformed to a social media and communication, brain idling and washing device. The invention of mobile devices has facilitated this addiction, dependency, obsession and loss of free thought and will globally and across the life span. In the following we will see how digital addiction has become the most common and worrisome addiction of all types, worse than addiction to gambling, and illicit drugs.


From TV to the Internet and beyond:

After the world war II, when TV invented and became a public entertainment device at home, addiction to it also started with its medical and psychiatric consequences such as reactive apathy and obesity. (6-7) Then soon came the video games such as Nintendo, and by the 80’s personal computers and by the 90’s internet. The medical concern grew so much that medical and psychological journals such as “Cyberpsychology Behaviour” for studying the medical and psychological complications of cyber-addictions were founded. (8) The obsessive and compulsive use of digital technology brought behavioural problems and symptoms similar to any addictive disorder, so the term “digital addict” and “digital addiction” were coined. (9) 

The unrestrained use of technological devices started to impact upon developmental, social, mental and physical well-being and resulted in symptoms akin to other behavioural addictions. Several clinics worldwide started offering treatment for internet addiction related disorders and several studies have sought to establish a connection between the use of the internet and patterns of abnormal behavior. Even some experts have suggested to list such addiction and disorders as a legitimate mental health disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now in its fifth edition published by the American Psychiatric Association. This in 2013 has been included in the appendix of the manual for further study and since has stimulated more research into this epidemic. (10-11) 


The digital addiction and its medical and psychological complications have become more of a concern world wide for children. The new generation spend less time interacting with their peers face to face and more time indoors than previous generations. In December 2013 researchers from the University of Maryland concluded the majority of students studied to be “addicted” to their technological devices, likening their symptoms when forcibly separated from technology to those experienced when withdrawn from an addictive substance. (12) The potential developmental side-effects of internet use are also recognized by the American Academy of Paediatrics in children under two years of age. (13) Furthermore, South Korea’s concern for the attachment its younger generation has to technology is even greater, with their parliament considering passing a law to curb obsessive game use within the country by classifying online gaming as a potentially anti-social addiction. (14) 


As of 2015, children as young as one year of age are using technology, such as tablets, ipods, ipads, iPhones, and computers. Researchers have found that the use of these devices can cause or contribute to child obesity because children spend so much time on their devices. It is also common for these children suffer pain because they are looking at their screens for long period of time. Moreover, children in the future may experience having poorer muscle tone because of being hunched over while using the devices. With increased time spent in front of the screen, children spend less time playing sports, exercising or participating in other activities, such as reading or engaging with other children. This is not only having a physical effect, but it is also affecting the children’s social development. Face-to-face interactions are highly crucial in a child’s development so that they can learn social and communication skills but increased technology time limits this and can impede development and learning. Because of the technological age that children are growing up in, this is becoming an increasing problem due to its accessibility to children, and some parents who allow their children having such devices from early on with no limitation and control are seriously responsible. (15-17)

In addition to the obsessive compulsive dependency and use of digital devices by the youth and adults alike, there are other negative aspects of the digital addiction, such as online risks of harassment/cyber bullying, sexual solicitation, social isolation, depression, etc. (18-19) A group of researchers in 9 European countries conducted a large study on children between the ages of 9 and 16 in regard with the Physical and psychological symptoms of digital addiction and found symptoms such as eye problems, headaches, malnutrition, and fatigue physically and cognitive decline, aggression, and sleeping problems mentally. (20) Korea Youth Panel Survey collected over a four-year period, concluded the offline abnormal behaviors and self-control problems of youth were significantly associated with problematic online behaviors, with more peer influence than parental. (21) A large survey in Germany with a sample of 1,444 students, found that 4.8 % of the participating students reported pathological internet use, and 14.5 % met criteria for risky Internet use. Overall, adolescents with risky or pathological internet use had more critical real life events, particularly within the context of interpersonal relationships and academic performance. (22) Digital and internet addiction has been such a medical concern that different assessment and measuring scales of such behaviours have been devised world wide. (e.g. 23)


Throughout our evolutionary history, our cognitive systems have been altered by the advent of technological inventions such as primitive tools, spoken language,writing, and arithmetic systems. Thirty years ago, the Internet surfaced as the latest technological invention poised to deeply reshape human cognition. With its multifaceted affordances, the Internet environment has profoundly transformed our thoughts and behaviors. Growing up with Internet technologies, “Digital natives”gravitate toward “shallow” information processing behaviors characterized by rapid attention shifting and reduced deliberations. They engage in increased multitasking behaviors that are linked to increased distractibility and poor executive control abilities. Digital natives also exhibit higher prevalence of Internet-related addictive behaviors that reflect altered reward-processing and self-control mechanisms. Recent neuroimaging investigations have suggested associations between these Internet-related cognitive impacts and structural changes in the brain. (24)

From IT to MT:

All digital gadgets from computer to mobile devices that were invented for information technology (IT) has been mostly transformed to media technology (MT) and for communication, mostly in the form of social media. The social media in the past two decades have caused more disturbances in individuals’ lives than the TV and internet in general. This has gone beyond the problematic use of youth, but has contaminated the grown ups all over the world seriously. As some of the research in this area will be presented here, we will see the negative impact of the social media on the physical, mental and social well being of the users of all ages, in addition to the cost and damages that have caused on the society at large, e.g. loss of work productivity, efficiency and else. 

Studies on social media users range from prediction of the personality type of the individuals to the negative impact on the users lives, including their personal and romantic relationships. (25-26) For example Facebook Addiction Scale has been developed and has shown that such addiction is positively related to neuroticism and extraversion, and negatively related to conscientiousness of personality factors and also high scores of the scale are associated with delayed bedtimes and rising times. (27) Such addiction has affected up to 50 percent of college and university students’ academic performances. (28) Addiction to the social media has wide spread globally and studies coming out from different countries, such as one from India reporting 24.74% of the teenage students having occasional or ‘frequency’ problems, while 2.02% of them experiencing severe problems, having caused decrease in real life social community participation and academic achievement. (29)

Another study among Irish teenagers aged 11-16 years, has reported potential hazards of social media overuse, including bullying, inappropriate contact, overuse, addiction and invasion of users’ privacy, with 98% being unsupervised, and 27% reported inappropriate contact from others. (30) A study among students in Turkey reported Facebook addiction cost weekly time commitment, severe depression, anxiety and insomnia. (31) Another study in Peru, among students revealed 77.0% of the users being women, and poor sleep quality present in 55.0%. (32) A study among 1000 medical students in the middle east reported daily use of 3-4 hours, 60% in women and 40% among men with a large number of participants (75%) complained of mood swings. (33) 

Social media addiction has been linked with poor emotion regulation skills and heightened susceptibility to both substance and non-substance addiction. (34) Digital addiction through functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) has also shown to share some neural features with substance and gambling addictions, with some differences from such addictions in their brain etiology and possibly pathogenesis, as related to abnormal functioning of the inhibitory-control brain system. (35) A study from among 211 employees in 13 enterprises in Thailand, revealed that people who are highly addicted to social media tended to have lower mindfulness and use emotion-focused coping to deal with stress. Lack of mindfulness and the decision to use emotion-coping strategy are also subsequently associated with higher emotional exhaustion. (36) 

Another study among Pakistani students reported Facebook addiction was positively correlated with narcissism and negatively with self-esteem. (37) Other than physical and mental health problems of digital addiction that briefly detailed above, and the privacy intrusions and other associated risks that communication with others online may bring about, there are risks of accidents and injuries, morbidities and mortalities while engaging with these online activities and walking, driving and else. Although these risks are more during text messaging that will be presented briefly in the following, there are reports of social media and else browsing while walking or driving. (38)     

Text Messaging (SMS):

Texting or text messaging either through phone messaging or social media has become not only an addiction and overused, in comparison with face to face interactions or simple phone calls communications, it has become a life hazard. More and more people text while walking, crossing the road, bridges, driving or even operating machineries and even public transports. This obviously leads to increased distraction and loss of control and increased risk of accidents, injuries, morbidities and mortalities. A study in 2006, with 900 teens from over 26 high schools in US showed that 87% of students found texting to be “very” or “extremely” distracting. (39) One example of distraction behind the wheel is the 2008 Chatsworth train collision, which killed 25 passengers, because the operator had sent 45 text messages while operating the train. (40) Texting while driving has been compared with drunk driving, and even more dangerous. While being legally drunk added four feet to Alterman’s stopping distance while going 70 mph, reading an e-mail on a phone added 36 feet, and sending a text message added 70 feet. (41) In 2009, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released the results of an 18-month study that involved placing cameras inside the cabs of more than 100 long-haul trucks, which recorded the drivers over a combined driving distance of three million miles. The study concluded that when the drivers were texting, their risk of crashing was 23 times greater than when not texting. (42)

Texting while walking has also become increasingly the practice of people being transfixed to their mobile device without looking in any direction but their personal screen while walking. Text messaging among pedestrians leads to increased cognitive distraction and reduced situation awareness, and may lead to increases in unsafe behavior leading to injury and death. Recent studies conducted on cell phone use while walking showed that cell phone users recall fewer objects when conversing, walk slower, have altered gait and are more unsafe when crossing a street. (43-45)

Text messaging has affected students academically by creating an easier way to cheat on exams. In December 2002, a dozen students were caught cheating on an accounting exam through the use of text messages on their mobile phones. In December 2002, Hitotsubashi University in Japan failed 26 students for receiving e-mailed exam answers on their mobile phones. The number of students caught using mobile phones to cheat on exams has increased significantly in recent years. According to Okada (2005), most Japanese mobile phones can send and receive long text messages of between 250 and 3000 characters with graphics, video, audio, and Web links. In England, 287 school and college students were excluded from exams in 2004 for using mobile phones during exams. Some teachers and professors claim that advanced texting features can lead to students cheating on exams. Students in high school and college classrooms are using their mobile phones to send and receive texts during lectures at high rates. Further, published research has established that students who text during college lectures have impaired memories of the lecture material compared to students who do not. For example, in one study, the number of irrelevant text messages sent and received during a lecture covering the topic of developmental psychology was related to students’ memory of the lecture. (46-48)

Text messaging has been a subject of interest for the police forces around the world. One of the issues of concern to law enforcement agencies is the use of encrypted text messages. In 2003, a British company developed a program called Fortress SMS which used 128 bit AES encryption to protect SMS messages. (49) Police have also retrieved deleted text messages to aid them in solving crimes. For example, Swedish police retrieved deleted texts from a cult member who claimed she committed a double murder based on forwarded texts she received. (50) The excessive use of the thumb for pressing keys on mobile devices has led to a high rate of a form of repetitive strain injury termed “BlackBerry thumb”. An inflammation of the tendons in the thumb caused by constant text-messaging is also called text-messager’s thumb, or texting tenosynovitis. Texting has also been linked as a secondary source in numerous traffic collisions, in which police investigations of mobile phone records have found that many drivers have lost control of their cars while attempting to send or retrieve a text message. Increasing cases of Internet addiction are now also being linked to text messaging, as mobile phones are now more likely to have e-mail and Web capabilities to complement the ability to text. (51)


As detailed to some degree here, digital addiction has become more and more a global issue and hazard, to the point of not just the loss of free thinking and will of humans, but loss of productivity, physical and mental sickness and a major loss to the society at large, only for the sake of big profit making of some enterprises who promote such addiction! As of 2016, the worth of Facebook is over $328 billion, the fastest growing company in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, all because the people like gossips. The worth of Twitter in 2013, over $40 billion, though lost some profits in the recent years, and the worth of whatsapp, $19 billion that Facebook paid for its acquisition in 2014. The highest youtuber is a 25 years old Swede who made $12 million in the past year, perhaps more than any entertainer or athlete, just because of many blindfolded youtube followers who are mostly children and youth! Therefore these enterprises are responsible for the digital addiction and all the repercussions that cause on individuals and the society at large. The fact that the majority of people are consumers of such digitalism and social media and alike, does not make such use legitimate and healthy. Majority of people could be wrong as majority of German people were wrong, brain washed and else to vote for the Nazi party and put Hitler in power to lead the world to war, disaster great losses.

True governments need to put curb on digital overuse and addiction and treat it as other addictions such as illicit drugs and gambling, and not to let the media and profit making enterprises promote such sickness that has befallen on the society of the world, specially on our young generations. Any agency who cares for the well-being of people, from governments and else, need to know that if the free thought and free will are lost, the foundation of the society will be lost, as our civilizations are fundamentally based on these concepts. The education of the digital over-users and the control of digital addiction enterprises need to be in priority of the authorities and governments. We as humans may be wiped out of the face of earth even earlier than thought by microbial invasions or collision of the earth by an asteroid or else!    


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