Addiction, Technology, Social Connection, and Recovery

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By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

For many years it was believed that drugs, including alcohol and heroin, were inherently mood-altering, that their very use would inevitably lead to addiction. This was reflected in large-scale studies. The Partnership for a Drug Free America, for example, funded research in which rats were placed in an empty cage with a bowl of plain water and another bowl of water infused with either cocaine or heroin. Inevitably the rats chose the drug-infused water and eventually died of drug overdoses. The conclusion was that drugs cause addiction and, once you are hooked, there is little hope for recovery.

In the 1970s, a Canadian psychologist named Bruce Alexander refuted this research with his “Rat Park” study, in which he replicated these earlier experiments with rats and bowls of water but, this time, giving them plenty of cheese, toys, and the company of several other rats. In this social setting, the rats consumed 75% less drug-infused water than the isolated rats, and none of these rats overdosed. Later, he put some rats who’d been isolated and drinking drug-infused water into the Rat Park, where they again consumed 75% less of drug-infused water. So even addicted rats preferred social connection to drugs.

From this, it was clear that social connection is a significant protective factor against the perils of addiction. Other interesting observations about the role of social connection began to be noted. It is estimated that up to half the soldiers in Vietnam used heroin, for example, and 20% of those were addicted. Yet, when they returned home to their communities and support networks, more than 95% of those individuals stopped using heroin completely.

The rat park and other studies are summed up well in [Johann Hari’s Ted Talk, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.

If social connections are important to mitigate the risk of addiction, what happens when we increasingly move into the digital world? The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that since 2001 heroin overdoses are up six-fold and prescription opiate overdoses are up four-fold. We have also seen a 42% increase in cocaine overdose deaths and a 5% increase in benzodiazepine deaths. During this same timeframe, the number of Americans reporting regular use of technology such as iPhones iPads, and other electronics increased from 46% to 84%.

Is there a connection? It seems that perhaps there is, and that the connection could be the disconnection wrought by digital devices. When we tune in to technology, some of us seem to tune out to interpersonal intimacy. In fact, numerous studies have found a link between increased use of digital technology and addiction. Columbia University, for example, found that American teens who spend time on social media are twice as likely to use marijuana, three times more likely to use alcohol, and five times more likely to use tobacco than other teens.

Other research looks at the impact of social isolation on our physiology. Oxytocin, for example, is boosted by human bonding and social connection and has important stress-reducing properties. Less oxytocin impacts our well-being. When we examine this fact, we see that the greater problem is not addiction itself, but rather the loneliness and isolation of our society, which makes people more vulnerable to addictions.

Here are five tips for building social connection adapted from Dean Ornish.

  1. Spend quality time with the people you really care about.
  2. Remember that it’s not the quantity of social relationships (5000 Facebook friends, for example) but the quality of social relationships that really matters.
  3. Use social media as a means to facilitate real-world social connection and plan real-world activities. Using it as a destination in and of itself can deepen your sense of loneliness and isolation.
  4. Create safe, real-life settings for yourself where you can interact with other people, speaking about your feelings with authenticity and listening to others without judgment and with empathy and compassion.
  5. Regularly attend activities, support groups, games, or training at least once or twice a month to strengthen your social network.