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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There is only one narcotic

The NY Times reports that some teenagers are canceling their Facebook accounts or voluntarily restricting their usage because it is taking over their lives and keeping them from school, family, and real-world contact with friends. The first psychologist they quote, Kimberly Young, says “It’s like any other addiction. It’s hard to wean yourself.”

I mean to take this sort of addiction seriously, although the Times has a history of sensationalizing youth trends that they don't really understand or have much evidence for. Note that Kimberly Young is introduced as the director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pa.; I'm going to go out on limb and guess that this academic-sounding institution is not exactly doing brisk business, and that its director is welcoming of publicity. When the Times states that she "said she had spoken with dozens of teenagers trying to break the Facebook habit", note how many steps far removed this is from actually treating even a single teenager who sought her out.

With that said, I think this problem, and the broader problem of addiction to the mesmerizing World Wide Web, is real. And I think it points to a problem with our education about addiction, which paints drugs as a supremely harmful force unlike any other. Drugs do contain a unique ability to screw up the body and mind, and disorient their users to the point of crashing their cars and unleashing violence. But their greater danger is addiction, and the damage of addiction is hard to explain well -- which is why we fall back on cautionary tales about doing PCP once and jumping through a second story window.

Here's my try: the damage of addiction, irrespective of the narcotic, is that it replaces real life. Potheads, including some friends of mine, generally believe that marijuana is not an addictive drug. But if you check out from the real world every day, you are missing out on real life.

Of course, there is no consensus on what real life consists of. If watching four hours of TV makes you a couch potato, doesn't reading a novel do the same thing? Most people consider reading novels a worthwhile use of time, but of course it depends on the novel; I'd advise putting down the Danielle Steele and smoking a joint instead.

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