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The Real Reasons for Smartphone Addiction

There is one tacit belief in our society about smartphone addiction. Indiscriminate exposure to smartphones is the cause of smartphone addiction. Smartphone users, once indulged in the pleasure of it, want more of it after that, reaching a point where they can’t control it. This is seen as a rule of thumb when dealing with addictions to other things, not just smartphones.

This view of the causes of addiction dates back to the early 1920s. At that time, scientists locked a rat in an empty box and kept pure water and water mixed with drugs. And the rats craved more and more narcotic water over time. Observing this, the scientists concluded that the drug itself was the cause of addiction, and that exposure to drugs invariably leads to addiction.

However, in the 1970s, Professor Bruce K. Alexander questioned this conclusion. He focused on the empty box, not the drug. In previous experiments, rats confined in empty boxes had only two options: pure water or narcotic water. But what if there were other ways for rats to spend their time other than drinking pure and drug water? Will rats still be addicted to narcotic water?

He experimented with changing the empty box to a different environment. The so-called Rat Park brought together several male and female rats that could mate, giving them their favorite cheese and toys. Then he gave the rats there pure water and narcotic water. The results were surprising. The rats were no longer addicted to drugs.

There are similar cases in humans. It is said that about 20% of U.S. soldiers dispatched during the Vietnam War took heroin. The soldiers could not resist the temptation of drugs amid the fear and tension of war. People who heard the news through the media worried that many soldiers would become drug addicts after the war.

But those worries never really happened. After the soldiers returned to the United States, an ongoing observational study found that, surprisingly, almost all of them quit heroin without experiencing any addiction problems. And it turns out that the biggest reason they were able to stop relying on drugs was the daily life with family and friends itself.

We all too easily identify the object and cause of addiction. So we believe that blocking the object of addiction can solve the addiction. So, when we see children unable to take their eyes off their smartphones, we force them not to do so. Because we see it as a way to stop children’s smartphone addiction.

But the story of the rat and the soldiers shows that we have been wrong about the cause of smartphone addiction. The smartphone may be the ‘object’ of addiction, but it is not the real ‘cause’. So what’s the problem? What is the empty box in which our children are confined? What is the battlefield that makes children feel threatened?

The answer lies in the reality in which they are placed. Their dream that one day they could get a job, buy a house, and even get married if they work hard has become a dream-like story. So, it is the reality that there is nothing to enjoy other than watching a short video uploaded on a smartphone.

Yes. The real reason our children are addicted to smartphones is the world itself created by us adults. And acknowledging that responsibility as adults will be the starting point for solving children’s smartphone addiction. Because we cannot solve problems for which we do not know why.

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