Narratives for Digital Addiction


We create narratives for our addictions. Narratives are “storylines” and in terms of addiction they are stories we tell ourselves and others to justify the continuation and even escalation of our addictive behaviour.

There used to be a narrative that smoking was good for you. This served the interests of tobacco companies and certainly made it easier for smokers to continue to smoke a hundred cigarettes a day. Even as our dad or mum coughed ceaselessly, our attempts to get them to give up or cut down were met with “But it doesn’t do me any harm!” or even “But it is good for my lungs, it clears out my chest!”

When evidence became more compelling concerning the link between smoking and lung cancer, the addicton narrative changed to one of questioning the reliability of the evidence. There were also other narratives, some of which survive to this day.

The most influential one was the “cool” narrative. It was cool to smoke. Bogart smoked. Eastwood’s gunslinger smoked. To be cool you needed to smoke. To be really cool, you needed to smoke a lot. Here we have what I call a “functional addiction narrative” – the narrative, and the accompanying behaviour, serves a useful purpose. It has a function. Smoking makes me cool and I want or need to be cool.

Other narratives also were born, more or less based in fact. Smoking relaxes me. Smoking is my only vice, or my only pleasure.

In all cases the narrative serves the addictive behaviour and perpetuates it through justification.

Functional narratives takes different forms…

We can use the Value Narrative (the addiction serves a necessary and valuable purpose)

We can use the Cool Narrative (it is fashionable and cool to do this a lot)

We can use the Health Narrative (Doing this is good for me and/or others)

Narratives can be very compelling and they can only be challenged or refuted with evidence. If we have evidence that an addiction does more harm than good, then the narrative can be brought under scrutiny. We weigh up the positive for the addiction against evidence based negatives. When the narrative is strongly rooted in ddiction, it can become extremely diffcult to challenge. The burden of prooft, of evidence, is  very demanding.

Many of us kept on smoking (and still do) even when the evidecnce of its harm was irrefutable. New narratives were cooked up – the right to indulge, the right to die, the right not to be told what to do.

A similar phenomenon of addiction narratives can be seen with other addictions. With gambling I tell myself I have cracked the system, that I can beat theodds, that I have luck on my side, that it is only a bit of fun.

With alcohol the narratives are about how drink relaxes us, makes us more confident, brings us pleasure after a hard day at work. Red wine is good for us. A brandy is good for the stomach. Many of these ideas are grounded in some evidence, but none suggest a narrative of addiction and bingeing.

The “cool” narrative is still strong in alcohol. It combined well even today with smoking. A lot of people still smoke abd drink heavily in the creative arts, the professions, and even in sports such as darts! Smoking and drinking, according to these narratives are cool, get us into a flow state, help us focus, help us to complete things; they assist our motivation, fire up our “mojo”.
These narratives form a self-conversation that justifies the addictive behaviour, and we also use them when we uphold our addictions ti others. We are the exception, this is the behaviour that we need because it serves a necessary function in our lives.

And, of course, grandad lived util he was 102 , smoked liked a chimney and drank a bottle of whiskey a night!

In recent decades the evidence for the harmful nature of addiction has grown. We do know that smoking can kill us. We know the healthy and safe limits for alcohol consumption. We know how gambling addiction destroys lives and livelihoods.
Digital addiction shares many features with these other, better known forms of addiction. Yet often it simply flies under the radar of scrutiny and challenge. Even as addiction clinics open all over the world, the functional narratives for digital addiction are almost beyond challenge.

Digital addiction manifests as compulsive connecting, of being 24/7 online. Yet being always on and available is designed into many peoples’ jobs. We are more responsive, more agile, even more effective. So goes the addiction narrative. We can reply instantaneously. We NEED to be on. My boss NEEDS to get hold of me day or night. I NEED to be in touch with my team.

Note that word need. It crops up in addiction. When a want becomes a need, we are haeading into pathological addiction.
The functional narrative of needing to be always digitally on then becomes dangerously the same as being digitally addicted. Manypeople  simply don’t notice the transition from a regular drink to an addiction to alcohol. This is even more true with digital addiction. Sometimes the design of our job or work forces it on us. Often we simply wander into it.

Addiction is the inability to say no to the substance. We find ourselves inexorably drawn back to our “fix”. In digital addiction it is every few minutes. We digitally imbibe when there is no real functional need. At work there is no authentic business value. But we digitally engage anyway. The generic narrative of “needing to be in touch” becomes a catch all reason to keep indulging. Soon we can’t stop, telling ourselves we can stop any time.
Checking in on email texts, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, making calls, commenting on posts.  Hourly becomes every few minutes. The digital device rests on our lap in meetings, held in hands in corridors, while we are eating, at home during mealtimes, in the cinema, the car, the train and plane. Even in the bedroom. At two in the morning.

There are various levels of digital addiction. But when we can’t stop, that is when the addiction starts.

The first step is of course THE First Step, to admit we are addicted and to seek help. Part of that will involve a reality check on our narratives. How truly functional are they? We then welcome evidence. How TRUE are these narratives? Only then can we, if we wish to, begin the cimb up and out.

It isn’t that the digital is all bad. Too much water can poison us. Addiction involves taking in too much of a substance too intensely, even if that substance is normally harmless or even benevolent.

If you are addicted, it is time to admit it, name it, recognise the narratives upholding the addictive behaviour, and Then to take the first step. Ready ?

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on May 26, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You are right, so many narratives re-enforce established orders and ways of thinking, or at least some form of group norm. I do see this to some degree in digital addiction, but I have yet to notice the coherence of narrative you see for smoking, alcohol etc. Perhaps that only comes when faced with a strong counter-voice.

  2. The ‘cool’ and ‘value’ narrative are certainly there Rob. These devices are cool and are meant to simplify our lives.

    However, I don’t think it is true that ‘they [narratives] can only be challenged or refuted with evidence’.

    I think awareness that there is a narrative is itself a good challenge. Once we realise there is a narrative, we might give it a little less weight, and in this way it is a good thing to draw attention to the narratives as you have done.

    Is this how you are interpreting the first step of AA’s 12-Step programme?

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