Is addiction to technology real?

People are increasingly addicted to smartphones and video games, and this seems to be by design!

People spend four hours a day on average on their phones, which is equivalent to 60 full days a year, or one quarter of their waking lives.

People are literally addicted to video games, social media, pornography and online shopping – and the numbers who are addicted to technology are growing.

We already find it difficult to switch off from the many apps on our phones and this could be about to get much worse with FaceBook, Google and Microsoft ploughing billions of pounds into constructing the MetaVerse.

These are just some of the claims that some experts make about the addictive nature of technology, but is this addiction to technology actually real?

Elaine Moore, a tech columnist for the Financial Times subjected these claims to critical analysis in a recent Radio 4 analysis podcast: Addiction in the Age of the MetaVerse.

Addiction to video Games

According to Supply Gem (Accessed November 2023) the video games industry is valued at between $221 billion and $385 billion, and there are between 3.09 and 3.26 billion gamers worldwide.

What drives a lot of that revenue are online games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty, games which are immersive, in real time and are played most obsessively by children and young adults.

Teachers have already raised concerns about the amount of time children spend playing these games and when virtual reality headsets are introduced they can become even more immersive and addictive.

The World Health Organisation recently added Gaming Disorder to the classification of Diseases.

The World Health Organisation’s definition of gaming disorder.

Ruth Lockwood from the NHS run centre for gaming disorder defines addiction to gaming as a lack of control over the amount of time an individual spends playing computer games, a tendency to prioritise gaming over other areas of one’s life to the detriment of other life activities. It is a compulsion to play video games even when there are negative consequences to doing so!

According to the experts above, gaming addiction is a real and recognised addiction and it is something that the NHS provides help for.

According to meta-analysis conducted in 2021 (and summarised by Game Quitters) 3-4% of gamers are addicted to video games, but the percentages vary considerably by age:

But what about other aspects of tech are they addictions too? 

Smart Phones and Addiction

Over 80% of the UK population now own a smart phone, with the figure being nearly 100% for the under 50s. People on average spend four hours a day on their phones which is 60 full days a year or 25% of our waking lives.

A recent 2019 YouGov survey found that 59% of 18-34 year olds would feel anxious if they were without their smartphones for a day because ‘they wouldn’t be able to instantaneously communicate with their friends or family’

Some people are on their phones so much that there is even a term – ‘fubbing’ which means scrolling through your phone while you’re in the middle of a conversation.

If you think you are spending too long on your phone then you might want to try The Smart Phone Compulsion Test developed by David GreenField and the Centre for Internet and Technology Addiction.

Pretty much anyone who takes that test is going to fail, and Catherine Price suggests this doesn’t mean that the test is invalid, rather it means that all of us have problematic relationships with our phones.

Smartphones are addictive by design

If you wanted to invent a device that would make the population perpetually distracted and isolated you would probably end up with the smart phone.

Many design features on Smart Phones are deliberately made to be addictive, evidence for this is that many design features mimic those of slot machines, which are widely regarded as some of the most addictive machines in the gambling industry.

This is especially true of any apps which rely on advertising as advertisers’ revenue increases the more time we spend on these apps, and the more attention we give them!

It’s also worth noting that slot machine addiction was the first officially recognised behavioural addiction in the United States.

Catherine Price has is author of How to Break up with your Phone – a 30 Day Plan to Take Back your Life. She argues that Smart Phones have the power to change the way our brains work.

However her book reminds us that our time and attention are finite and that maybe continually scrolling through our phones isn’t the best use of our time!

We cannot do two cognitively demanding things at once – for example we can’t think of two things at the same time, so in layman’s terms it is impossible for us to multitask.

Problems with Smartphone addiction

Anna Lembke, a Professor of Psychiatry and author of ‘Dopamine Nation‘ points out that SmartPhones light up the ‘reward pathway’ in the brain, from where dopamine is released, in the same way drugs and alcohol does.

There’s no blood test or brain scan to test for this type of addiction, instead researchers use Phenomenology – looking at individual experiences and the way patterns are repeated.

People who are addicted are in an altered state: their gremlins are now driving the bus. The prefrontal cortex which is necessary for factoring in future consequences and deferred gratification goes offline!

People in such a condition, such as compulsive tweeters fail to appreciate how their reward system has been hijacked and see their addictive behaviour as something they need to do.

Advantages of Smart Phones

James Ball, author of ‘The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How it Owns Us‘ is sceptical about the idea that everyone is addicted to their phones.

He argues that tech leads to behaviours that look like they may be addictions but aren’t necessarily addictions.

A phone fulfils different needs all at the same time – we might be having a coffee with a friend and our phones allow to us to check in with other people quickly while still having that coffee.

So possibly we shouldn’t interpret someone checking their phone every five minutes as being a ‘compulsion’ – rather it is something that enables us to effectively manage busy lives – and if it wasn’t for the smartphone allowing us to check-in with other people so easily maybe we wouldn’t be be meeting that friend for an IRL coffee in the first place.

The Metaverse

The MetaVerse is a digital reality that exists in parallel to actual reality.

Some authors think the idea of the Metaverse will be so compelling that we’ll forget to log off from the internet altogether!

Computers have become smaller and the way we interact with them has become more and more intuitive and the Metaverse evolves this make computers invisible, it actually extends into our reality, impinges on it!

Facebook, Google and Apple are all very interested in the Metaverse and are investing huge sums of money into it. Meta alone invested $10 billion in 2021 and all major companies are developing their own head sets.

The merging of the real and virtual world could have sever implications for people’s mental health as it could allow people to block out aspects of their realities that they don’t like and don’t want to deal with, but they would have to allow

The Metaverse could get more and more potent, more addictive – like PacMan isn’t going to do it for a five year old today!

And the government are very unprepared for this next step in the evolution of virtual reality. A recent Digital White Paper didn’t even mention the Metaverse once. The government seems to be on the back foot and unable to anticipate what’s going to happen in the future.

A moral panic over the Metaverse?

James Ball doesn’t think we are into an age of hyper-seductive targeted marketing in the Metaverse given how inaccurate the current targeted advertising is!

There are also possible advantages – motivational apps for developing good behaviours such as walking more or giving up drinking, and we are rewarded with badges for example.

Signposting and Relevance to A-level Sociology

The material above is mainly relevant to the media option at A-level sociology, but this should also be of general interest to anyone with a Smartphone!

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Jean Baudrillard

Postmodern society has no underlying reality, there are just signs and symbols.

Jean Baudrillard (1929 to 2007) argued that material reality was disappearing and being replaced by a system of signs, leading to a social world which had no objective material reality at all, but rather one that was being continually produced by an endless series of signifiers.

In this new social reality all objects became manufactured commodities, devoid of any original meanings or material ‘use-value’ they once had.

Baudrillard’s early works were published in the late 1960s and early 1970s and he drew on the post-structuralist thinking which was influential at that time. Initially he focused on developing a critique of consumer culture, but into the 1980s and 1990s he started to develop his better known ideas about there being no underlying reality other than hyperreality.

Baudrillard is usually classified in social theory text books as both a post-Marxist and a postmodern thinker.

A postmodern critique of Marxism

Baudrillard developed a criticism of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and especially his concept of use-value (a concept which was fundamental to Marx’s theories of alienation and exploitation, see FAQs below for an explanation).

The ‘use-value’ of an object derives from that object’s material qualities. For example a coat’s use value is that it keeps you warm and dry, and a car’s use value is that it transports you to places in relative speed and comfort.

For much of modernity the meaning of objects lay in their use-value, a coat meant something that kept you warm, a car meant something which was faster than a horse and more comfortable than a bus.

However, this changes in age of postmodernity when the production of signs, not physical commodities increasingly becomes the key factor of social life the symbolic value of objects becomes more important than the the use value of objects as a source of shared meaning.

For example the meaning of a coat lies not in the coat’s utility but in the branding of that coat, in the labels attached to it, in whatever signs marketers have decided to attach to it.

In postmodernity the material reality of the underlying objects is obliterated by this system of signs, what is important is the symbolic value of objects. What matters about an object is what it tells us about the person using that object, not its use-value

Baudrillard rejected Marxism, because in Marxism the value of an object can be explained by the labour power than went into making it, but in postmodernity the value of an object lies in the symbolic meaning of that object, in what signs are projected onto it, which marketers can just make up as they go along, value is no longer to do with simply material production.

Contemporary capitalism is much more irrational and uncontrollable than Marx imagined and it operates according to its own possibly unknowable logics and is certainly beyond control by a unified ruling class.

Baudrillard rejects class based analysis of society. Baudrillard believes that the system of signs is autonomous from social class and is running away from human control into directionless change.

No underlying reality

Today there is no ‘reality’ based in use-values that can be distinguished from ‘fictional’ exchange-values.

He rejects the Marxist distinction between the truth that the ruling classes control material reality and exploit the working classes and the fiction they create through ideological control.

The media no longer produced propaganda for a ruling class, because that is based on the distinction between reality and fiction.

In postmodernity, everything is just on the surface, everything visible and on display, there is no underlying reality or truth to be discovered.

All that exist are surfaces and there is no substance beneath them.

A postmodern analysis can thus only examine this system of signs and follow how they transform without trying to find a deeper truth behind these transformations.

The reality we receive is so mediated by signs and symbols, it is pointless to unpick it for the real meaning.

In postmodernity the value of a product lies in its branding not in its use value.


Baudrillard suggested that the media was the key institution in postmodern society because the media is where signs and symbols circulate, and there are a bewildering array of signs and symbols and their meanings change in an unpredictable way.

Signs and symbols in the media do not refer the objects they purportedly refer to. Instead, real objects no longer exist and in fact create the objects they supposedly merely reflect. (This is what Baudrillard refers to as simulcra: signs and symbols that create reality).

Instead of images reflecting reality, images now create reality. This is the condition of hyperreality.

Postmodern culture consists of a reality created purely by unstable and shifting symbols and signs. Especially in the media.

In postmodernity we have the ‘death of the real‘ – all we have is an unstoppable and never ending reality-creating symbols in a media dominated world, Systems of signs and symbols have taken on a life of their own.

This is a post-modern take on alienation: symbols, which were originally made by humans, have taken on a life of their own and come to dominate and control the people who made them.

This situation was never intended and is not controlled by anyone.


Baudrillard argued that Disneyland was an expression of hyprreality – a theme park full of simulcra which clearly had no hidden underlying meanings other than the cartoon characters and buildings therein.

Disneyland had a social function, it was presented to America as fictional in order to convince people that the ‘real’ America was ‘real’ – whereas in fact Disneyland is the real America and America is Disneyland, in fact they are one and the same, both part of hyperreality.

Disneyland does not exist to cover up the exploitative nature of American capitalism like marxists would claim, it hides nothing, because in postmodernity there is nothing to hide.

Under conditions of hyperreality information and meaning are both clear and incoherent at the same time.

There is no hidden depth to images, their information is immediately apparent, thus is the obscenity of communication.

However information is also unclear because there is so much information that it all ceases to make sense, so many channels and images create a state of meaning-chaos.

This overwhelming blizzard of information creates a sense of vertigo and ecstasy in the minds of audiences. There is so much meaning and information available that nothing makes sense anymore!

Disneyland is and example of hyperreality.

The Gulf War Never Happened

One of Baudrillard’s most famous (some might say outrageous) observations was that the Gulf War never happened, referring to the first Gulf War in the 1990s.

What he meant by this was that the reality of the war on the ground was so mediated by the time reports of it hit the media that representations of it were more like a film or a video game that the representations of the event turned it into something completely different.

The signs and symbols, or simulcra as Baudrillard calls them, claimed to represent reality but in fact they created it.

Evaluations of Baudrillard

Some of Baudrillard’s criticisms of classical Marxism are certainly valid:

  • His idea that value no longer derives purely from the material use-value of products is certainly valid, Symbolic value which is applied through marketing certainly plays a major role in postmodern society.
  • His idea that the maelstrom of signs and symbols in the media have something of a chaotic life of their own and that this system of meaning is not controlled by a distinct ruling class should maybe be taken seriously, especially in the age of YouTube creators.
  • His theory is also inherently critical of metanarratives, especially Marxism, which offers us the possibility of emancipation from the idea of truth.
  • He also recognised that audiences were not passive dupes which were controlled through the media. Rather he believed that information just flowed through them with very little effect!

Criticisms of Baudrillard

He takes the idea of simulcra and hyperreality too far. By stating that the Gulf War never happened he is ignoring the actual reality on the ground for the people who suffered through it.

It is one thing pointing out that media representations are far removed from some representations of reality (especially war) but another to say that they create that reality. To be blunt, the families of the people who died or were injured in that war may have different views to Baudrillard.

He also ignores the fact that with the cost of living crisis and climate crisis it would seem that underlying material reality really does matter. Global warming and inflation have very real impacts on people’s lives.


This material has been written mainly for A-level sociology students studying the Theory and Methods aspect of the AQA specification. Baudrillard is usually classified as one of the main postmodern thinkers within A-level sociology although the level of depth above may be quite advanced for some students.

Baudrillard’s work on hyperreality is also relevant to the media module. He is the main guy who believes there is no reality other than media created reality in postmodern society.

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Jean Baudrillard image: By – cropped from ., CC BY-SA 3.0,

A few Sociological Observations on ‘The Circle’ (Channel 4)

The Circle’ is a new ‘reality’ show currently airing on Channel 4 in the UK…. It is quite literally a ‘popularity contest In which 8 contestants compete over a 3-week period to be the most popular person in ‘The Circle’. The most popular contestant at the end wins £50K.

The rub is that there is no actual face to face interaction: competitors set up a social media profile (this can be anything from a more genuine portrayal of themselves to an outright catfish profile) and interact with all other competitors via a specially designed social media interface, called ‘the circle’.

The Circle is basically like Watts App – in addition to the profile, the contestants can have private 1-1 conversations, various ‘wittily named’ group chats, and whole ‘circle chats’. The circle also provides news feeds from the outside world, which competitors are expected to discuss.

Every few days, the competitors rate each other (a five star, Trip Advisor style rating) – the top two or three become ‘influencers’ and get to decide who to ‘block’ from the bottom three….. whoever is blocked gets kicked out and replaced by a new circle member.

Competitors are confined to an apartment room for the duration of the competition and have no contact with outside world, except for the snippets of news mentioned above.

The programme says of itself that it is…. ‘Timely and provocative [and] will ask questions about modern identity – how we portray ourselves and communicate on social media’…. but does it?

A few sociological observations…

An easy ‘critical starter’ is to focus on just how unrepresentative of the wider UK population the circle contestants are. They are all young (typically in their 20s, with the odd ‘young’ 30 year old), but they do not represent young people in Britain today: nearly without exception the contestants are confident, outgoing, party-types, clearly selected for their ability to ‘entertain’ on camera. Then (OF COURSE?) there’s the fact that that most of them are very attractive.

I guess it’s no surprise that all of the contestants are very comfortable interacting via ‘The Circle’, that is comfortable interacting blind (as in not face to face) with communication in short, sharp bursts, and sentences of more than 20 words are rare and emojis and hashtags being very much the norm, as is the practice of ‘leaving someone hanging’ by signing off when they’ve had enough of a private chat.

Interestingly, most of the contestants have chosen to be (more or less) themselves. Only two contestants (out of about a dozen I’ve seen) have gone for a virtual sex-swap, and one more a sexuality swap, everyone else is ‘more or less’ themselves. They know how exhausting it is ‘putting on an act’ for any length of time. In short, there simply aren’t that many catfish!

Alarmingly, the contestants are very comfortable with rating people quantitatively…. they do so, and give their reasons, with relish. And they seem to love it when they come out on top.

The contestants also know this is a game and are comfortable with this fact that this is a game…. which is why I think parallels with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror aren’t justified. It’s not a harbinger of a dystopian future, they know it’s just a bit of fun, even if the experience is stressful.

Final Thoughts…

Ultimately  ‘The Presentation of Self In Every Day Life‘ is the most relevant theory to draw on to analyse what’s going on here… clearly these contestants are putting on masks, not only via their Circle social media profiles, but also when they’re acting on camera for the C4 audience – let’s not forget, most of these contestants are media-personality wannabes!

Written for Educational Purposes!

Image Sources

The Circle