When we look at addiction, it’s easy to see the worst of culprits that destabilize, debilitate and sometimes eventually destroy through unnatural deterioration, meaning that use and/or abuse of any of certain obvious substances can do major harm. The most notorious substances include narcotics, from painkillers to heroin, cocaine to meth, but also legal drugs such as alcohol, cigarettes and nicotine. The one addiction that too many of us have and refuse to talk about as a problem: addiction to virtual reality and social media. No doubt the idea of talking about this will cause feelings of discomfort but let’s first home in on what Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander discovered about lonely rats and morphine and cocaine in his 1978 Rat Park addiction experiment.

Alexander and his colleagues set about to verify two claims:

Claim A: All or most people who use heroin or cocaine beyond a certain minimum amount become addicted.

Claim B: No matter what proportion of the users of heroin and cocaine become addicted, their addiction is caused by exposure to the drug.

The experiment featured social rats in two different settings: 1. rats raised in isolated metal cages and 2. rats in a Rat Park, “airy and spacious, with about 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. It was also scenic (with a peaceful British Columbia forest painted on the plywood walls), comfortable (with empty tins, wood scraps and other desiderata strewn about on the floor), and sociable (with 16-20 rats of both sexes in residence at once),” wrote Alexander. In both settings, rats were given two water bottles: one with water and another laced with either narcotic, depending on whether the focus of the experiment was on morphine or cocaine. We will focus on the results of the morphine experiment, which is known for its sedative and pain relieving qualities.

“Under some conditions the animals in the cages consumed nearly 20 times as much morphine as the rats in the Rat Park. Nothing that we tried instilled a strong appetite for morphine or produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment,” he found. Alexander concluded that it is not the drug that makes the addict, but the environment.

In our cover story this week, “Virtual insanity,” Dustin Weissman, a Westlake Village psychologist who specializes in Internet addiction, talked about our social media habits:

 “Teens and adults alike are compulsively checking their cell phones much more than they realize. Many teens will tell you that they do this for fear of missing out. Their lives revolve on an Internet platform with endless scrolling. The amount of likes and reactions that they get are translated as a reflection of their popularity and social acceptance. It is important that today’s youth learn that their self-worth is not best measured in this manner.”

While Weissman focused primarily on teens and youth, we as a culture seem to be ignoring how adults’ addiction to constant online feedback, adulation, admiration and even confrontation, our faces buried in our phones and computers, are impacting our children. And then we wag our fingers in shame at our kids and wonder where they are getting it from. The answer is us. Worse, when our kids aren’t getting the feedback they think they should be getting, depression and even suicide are noted as side effects. If we think it’s only hurting our children, we need to step back and wonder why.

We need to understand that they aren’t coming up with this addiction on their own and that it’s vital that we put down our phones but really start talking and actually hearing what is being said, not only to our kids and to each other. Understandably, we may all be lonely rats in a cage but we are suffering from a lack of true, real social connections as a society that perpetuates that our social media addiction and feeds it too. And that’s what is hurting our kids, that disconnect.

This week, we challenge you to take a break and start talking to each other in person and off the screen. We have to manage this addiction before it becomes so unwieldy, if it’s not already, that we can’t come back to reality.

For more on the Rat Park experiment, go to https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/committee/371/ille/presentation/alexender-e.htm