Sam Holstein

The Addictions We Pretend Not To Have

There are certain kinds of vices we, as a society, consider bad: smoking (cigarettes or cannabis), drinking alcohol, and popping pills are examples. There are other kinds of vices we consider… not good, exactly, but less bad, like eating junk food and watching TV.

For the former, we are socially permitted to act like they’re bad. It’s considered acceptable to ask a friend who’s been drinking a lot how they’re doing or to hold an intervention for someone who’s been popping a few too many xans1 lately.

For the latter, though, we are permitted to do none of those things. If one of our friends starts spending all their evenings in, watching Netflix and ordering takeout, the most we can do is rib them for not hanging out with us. It isn’t socially acceptable to acknowledge this is unhealthy behavior, and if we try, we’re likely to get told off for having a judgmental attitude.

As best I can tell, this is based on a belief about the fundamental nature of these behaviors. Take social media; I’m firmly of the opinion that social media is terribly unhealthy. When I tell people this, though, I frequently receive the following response:

“Well, anything can be addicting. Even shopping can be addicting. It’s about how you do it.”

The implicit assumption is that, aside from things that are clearly bad, like alcoholism or drug addiction, most everything in this world is net-neutral. As long as you’re not letting things get out of control, you’re doing fine.

When you think about it, though, there’s not a solid basis for that divide. Popping pills and drinking until you pass out every night is clearly bad for you, but so is staying in and watching Netflix every night. I’m willing to bet that if you consider two people, one who drinks three beers every night and one who watches three episodes of Netflix every night, you’ll find that their lives are being held back by their bad habits in equal measure.

This has certainly proven to be true in my own life. Currently, I smoke pot 3–5x a week, a habit that our cultural standards clearly consider “bad.” Yet I manage to write and publish an article, go to my job, go to the gym, and make progress on my reading goals every day. A few years ago, though, I was a huge Netflix enthusiast. There were times my enthusiasm rose to the level of dependency. I would watch upwards of four hours of Netflix a day. Despite the fact that I was completely alcohol-free and drug-free, it was still a struggle for me to get classwork done and hold down a side job. Going to the gym and getting extra studying done was out of the question. When it comes to me and my life, Netflix is unquestionably more dangerous than cannabis.

I’m not the only one to suffer from a non-traditional bad habit. Writer David Foster Wallace is known for both his alcoholism and the crippling depression which eventually ended his life. But when asked if he was addicted to anything, he didn’t say alcohol. He said television.

I think my primary addiction in my entire life has been to television. And that the fact that I don’t have a television, but now enjoy sitting in the second row of movies where things blow up—this is not an accident.

David Foster Wallace in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky

When people want to justify unhealthy behaviors, they say something like “anything can be addicting.” “All things in moderation.” But the fact of the matter is that nothing is neutral. Everything you do either makes your life better or worse. The key to having a better life, then, is simple: do more stuff that makes your life better.

When we say things like “anything can be addicting” and “it’s about how you use it,” though, we’re flatly denying this reality, making it that much harder for people to make their own lives better.

Case in point: Giving up Netflix was damn hard for me. It took nine months of building healthy habits like going to the gym and reading every day before I felt ready to say goodbye to TV for good. What made giving up Netflix even harder was the fact that most everyone else feels that Netflix isn’t something worth giving up. When I tell people nowadays I am cutting back on smoking pot, I’m met with sympathetic nods and words of approval. But when I told people I was cutting back on TV, I was met with incredulity. How was I going to watch Stranger Things?! Oh boy, was I going to miss out. Some people actively took offense. Uh, TV isn’t bad, and if TV is making your life worse, it’s obviously just a sign that you’ve got a personal issue.

This attitude is common to giving up vices our culture hasn’t yet accepted as vices. In addition to watching way too much Netflix, I used to spend hellacious amounts of time shopping and browsing social media for fashion and shopping inspiration. When I wrote about these experiences in the past, one of the most common responses I received was “well, the fact that you had a problem with social media doesn’t mean social media’s bad, it just means you can’t control yourself.”

I’m assuming whoever’s reading this article is familiar with why willpower doesn’t work, so I won’t rehash it here. While it’s true that any bad habit I have is, ultimately, my own problem, it’s also true that it’s going to be a lot harder for me to fix that problem if all of society is working against me. It’s going to be harder for you to solve your problems when all of society is working against you.

Takeaway

I’m not suggesting anything radical. I’m just suggesting that we start acknowledging that there are many more vices out there than just the usual drugs, gambling, and sex addictions. Some people have flashy vices like that, but many more people have under-the-radar vices: watching porn, surfing social media, binge-watching Netflix. Unglamorous though these vices may be, they are as capable of ruining your life as their flashier cousins.

The next time you see a friend has been investing serious time into bingeing Netflix, or the next time you notice yourself spending 6+ hours on Instagram, don’t just shrug it off. I’m not saying you have to flip out — just as one night of partying doesn’t make you an alcoholic, one night wasted watching Netflix doesn’t mean you have a problem. But if it begins to happen again, and again, and again, take notice. These vices have a steep cost – even if you can’t always tell.

Footnotes:
  1. Xans (pronounced zans), short for illegally obtained Xanax