Social Media Technologies & the Language of “Addiction”

You may have heard people utilize the language of “addiction” to speak of their use of smart phones, either to connect to social media or to text.  I remember hearing for the first time a few years ago a colleague refer to his “Crackberry” and knowing immediately what he meant.

With the Lenten season approaching, many will be going on “technology fasts.”  They likely do this sort of thing from a sense that their use of these technologies or their reliance on social media is out of control.

Sherry Turkle argues that the language of “addiction” is inappropriate when it comes to social media technologies.  Putting things in terms of “addiction” implies that the solution is to quit, cold turkey.  If you do actually have a crack-cocaine problem, you should stop immediately!

Turkle notes, however, that these social media technologies will continue to be part of our world.  She says it’s better to consider carefully how we might use them fruitfully rather than simply to avoid them.

Further, she notes that the language of “addiction” doesn’t grapple seriously with the complications and complexities of how these technologies affect our humanity.  Putting things in those terms may be a convenient way to avoid doing the hard work of reflecting on how newer technologies affect the way we think, how we connect with our own emotions, how we fantasize, and how we relate to others.

What do you think of her point?  Have you set rules or boundaries for your use of social media or your smart phone?  Have you considered a “technology fast?”

8 thoughts on “Social Media Technologies & the Language of “Addiction”

  1. Dan Jr.

    Shane Hipps has done some great work on the unintended consequences of technology.

    One thing I’m running into while teaching and leading people into a more communal approach to following Jesus is the effects technology has had on what we think community is. The detoxification is complex because technology is not a neutral medium and it’s not going away. How do you teach people that eye-contact and active listening is essential for community when Facebook doesn’t develop any of those things? People are clamoring for community but they want it on the terms that technology has delivered it to them.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, that’s exactly the point! And that’s Turkle’s point — we want the relational payoff and the fulfillment, but we want these on our terms. But that’s not what real relationships are all about. There’s give and take, interchange, awkward pauses, negotiation, etc. Technology can scrub all that clean and make us forget that richly-textured relationships just aren’t that easy.

  2. debra_vs

    Okay, I’m going to post a long comment here. Please be patient with me.

    I love the social media because of its ability to keep me in touch with the family and friends – past and present – I’d never be able to keep up with otherwise. I literally have family members all over the U.S. and out of the country. My friends are even more far flung. I am also the unofficial computer geek for my high school graduating class, so I help them to keep in touch and post events for all to attend. I’ve found lost relatives and friends on Facebook, or they’ve found me. I’ve been absolutely thrilled and forever greatful for that! In that respect, Facebook has been a Godsend – literally – for me.

    Facebook, though, can be too much. So, I’ve learned how to tune out chatter and categorize my ‘friends’ so that I can *prioritze* posts. If I ddin’t, it would drive me nuts. Usually, I try to at least skim my family and close friends’ posts daily, my high school classmates’ posts about twice a week, and everything else as time permits.

    Some of my family and friends just can’t handle Facebook, so email is the way we stay in touch. I also use email for the more private, personal online conversations I may have. Facebook isn’t the place for intimacy or privacy!

    I keep in touch with various organizations through both Facebook and email. This has generally taken the place of the organizations’ newsletters. I don’t sit and answer everything everyone posts, but I do enjoy reading and written communication; therefore, I enjoy good written conversations, debates, lessons, etc. – like this one!

    I like knowing about my family and friends’ milestones and life changes,as well as being able to communicate my own – without having to write dozens of letters or make a phone call to what used to be ‘phone chains’ – which only worked erratically as a means of communicating at the best of times. Facebook, email, and even personal blogs help me do this.They are time savers, too! Now, instead of being on the phone for hours, receiving and passing along information to several people, playing phone tag, and so on, one post can let everyone know what’s happening. Also, writing letters back and forth can take weeks, but, now, written communications can happen in hours.

    I like being able to pray for those who are having problems, lend a shoulder to figuratively lean on, or say an encouraging word when someone needs it. Facebook does that well.

    I do not Tweet simply because I have enough trouble keeping up with email and Facebook, so I don’t need to heap more on my plate. I don’t find tweeting to be anywhere near as useful for my communication needs, either. Plus, if someone tweets something important, it usually also gets put up on Facebook.

    If you want to include cell phones in this, my post would be twice as long and would include important phone etiquette, a debate on texting versus calling, phone addiction, and safety issues. If you want to go there, just say the word.

    If you haven’t already noticed, I use social media primarily for communicating and keeping up with friends and events. Often, it’s a replacement for some older, less efficient, and/or slower means of communication. Without Facebook and email, especially, I would find it impossible to keep in touch with so many people, even though I would want to. With them, I have a chance to keep relationships which I’ve built over the years thriving and vibrant.

    1. timgombis

      I hear you, Debra. I think what’s helpful is knowing why you do what you do, controlling the tools and not letting the tools dominate or control you.

      You said it in your last paragraph–technology replaces one thing for another, in the interests of some sort of convenience. What’s needed is to be vigilant to know what you gain and what you lose in that transaction.

  3. Todd Huster

    I think the language of addiction is appropriate when dealing with social media. The technology is inherently addictive because that’s how those companies make money and they’re good at it. I’m not saying it can’t be part of a balanced life, but it’s always going to be somewhat of a struggle. Fasting seems appropriate.

    1. timgombis

      I think it’s more complex than that, but addictive behavior is part of it. From what I witnessed among many college students, many of the same impulses are there as among chain-smokers!

  4. Matt Waymeyer

    Julie and I went to Chick-fii-La this past Saturday morning for a date and some planning time. The place was close to empty, but there was a father was sitting in the corner with his 5-year-old daughter. A precious little scene at first, but then the guy ended up being glued to his Blackberry the entire time. The title of Sherry Turkle’s book immediately jumped to mind.

    Great to find your blog, Tim, but this is no way to continue a friendship. So let’s plan to start texting each other or at least become friends on Facebook!

    1. timgombis


      Turkle says she encounters more teenagers frustrated with their parents’ incessant texting rather than the reverse. When I took Maddie and Riley ice-skating the other day, I don’t know how may times I saw fathers skating while holding their child’s hand and texting with the other.

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