Editor’s Note: The intent of this recurring series is not to write an academic paper on the matters covered, but simply to provide our reader with some basic information. Therefore, to avoid burdening these answers with a excess of footnotes, some of the sources lightly used in our research are not properly acknowledged.
What is “addiction”?
Until recently, medical literature defined “addiction” only in reference to compulsive drug abuse despite detrimental consequences. Thus, the World Health Organization defined it as “the state of periodic or chronic intoxication detrimental to the individual and to society, produced by the repeated consumption of a drug. Its characteristics include an overpowering desire or need (compulsion) to continue taking the drug and to obtain it by any means, a tendency to increase the dosage, and a psychological, and sometimes physical, dependence on the effects of the drug.” But now many researchers are re-defining “addiction” as a chronic disease, affecting the reward, reinforcement, motivation, and memory systems of the brain, and which is manifested in an individual’s pathological pursuit of gratification and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. While previous definitions were focused on the substances associated with addiction, such as alcohol or drugs, this new definition is extended so as to include compulsive behaviors that are gratifying.
We know that, in creating human nature, God has established certain operations as necessary for the survival and well-being of the individual and for the perpetuation of the human race. God has also established the physical mechanism—the chemistry and neural pathways of our brain— that gives us a sense of pleasure and contentment when those actions are performed, in order to help us to perform them and to remember the experience, thus providing a compelling incentive to repeat them as often as necessary to attain the ends intended by God. Unfortunately, we are also capable of abusing our free will and the physical faculties with which God has endowed us by seeking that pleasure in a disordered manner, that is, in a manner contrary to God’s design.
It is well known that drug abuse causes real, demonstrable physiological effects that make it harder and harder for a person to stop using the drug, even though he knows it is harmful. As the recent change in the definition of “addiction” reflects, scientific research is now showing that when some individuals are engrossed in a particular behavior, they are physically affected in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict is affected by a particular substance. The drug addict’s cycle of preoccupation/anticipation (craving), binge/intoxication, and withdrawal/negative effect stages are reproduced in behaviors such as compulsive gambling, compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, compulsive sexual behavior, and compulsive exercise.
These behavioral addictions are recognizable in the following: first, inability to consistently abstain from a disordered action, that is, the impairment of the control of one’s behavior; second, an increased “hunger” for gratifying experiences of pleasure or relief, to the extent that even when negative consequences occur, this behavior continues or escalates; finally, a diminished recognition of the serious alteration of one’s behaviors and relationships, due to the fact that the disordered behavior takes precedence over other activities, thus leading to significant distress and damage in personal, family, social, academic or occupational functioning.
Is there any element of personal responsibility in an addiction?
The medical research quoted is rightly focused on the neurobiological effects (i.e. brain chemistry) of drug abuse or addictive behaviors. It is for us, as Catholics, to draw its implications for personal morality and the social common good.
Scientific studies are conclusively showing that addiction, not only to drugs but also to certain behaviors, severely alters the brain’s chemistry and pathways, slowly eroding a person’s ability to choose otherwise to the point that he becomes a helpless victim of forces beyond his control. There are some biological factors and even particular and social circumstances that may contribute to the acquisition of an addiction, removing or seriously diminishing the personal responsibility of he who has now become an addict. In that sense, then, both in its origin and at its present stage, it is an illness requiring professional attention.
But in most of the cases that come to the attention of a confessor, the now addictive behavior began with the free, conscious choice of a morally disordered action—that is, an action contrary to the design of God for our lives, and thus, forbidden by His law.
Many who are now addicted to some morally disordered behavior have, in the past, freely chosen to perform a sinful action, and have persisted in seeking its gratifying effect by repeatedly making the same morally disordered choices, while at the same time being aware that such repetition of acts may create a habit, leading to further sinful actions, which, in turn, may have seriously damaging consequences for their lives and relationships.
At that stage, the disordered behavior becomes part of the moral activity of the individual: the inclination towards the moral good is relegated to a lower level and replaced by the inclination towards the addictive object. The person’s moral conscience is thus transformed. His personal responsibility and the moral gravity of his actions may be diminished by the now addictive character of the behavior, but he is not exempt from sin.
Is there something like an “Internet addiction”?
It is a fact that the internet has invaded our daily lives. It is available everywhere—in our places of work, schools, libraries, and at the tip of our fingers in our smartphones, tablets, computers...We use it for virtually everything—for work, study, research, news, communication, banking, shopping, entertainment, or even for indulging our sometimes unwholesome curiosity, or perhaps for finding long lost friends or directions to a place…It was very useful for doing the research for this article and it will give you the possibility of reading it in The Angelus Online!
But such technological novelty has come with a price—it has considerably modified our individual behavior, our social habits and our norms of politeness, but also, and more profoundly, our mental processes, and our moral vulnerability, by constructing a whole new universe of sins and temptations.
In truth, the internet is a tool, an instrument, for which there are many legitimate uses which could not be classified as an addiction. Internet use is not an activity in and of itself—we use it for something else. The pervasiveness of the internet has turned it into the instrument of choice for pursuing a myriad of addictive behaviors. But some researchers point out that when we talk specifically of “internet addiction,” we should be referring to an addictive use of the tool itself, the gratifying feeling of being online, connected to something, rather than to any particular activity that could be accomplished by means of that tool. In their opinion, then, if we compulsively use the internet for gambling, what we have is a gambling addiction, not an internet addiction.
As researchers do not agree on the criteria to determine when the excessive use of the internet becomes an addiction or what its proper object is, there is not one clear definition of “internet addiction.” No single pattern of behavior defines it, but when a person is engaged in a compulsive use of the internet, preoccupied with being online, lying or hiding the extent or nature of his online behavior, and unable to control or curb such behavior, then certainly an addiction exists, one that takes control of the addict’s life and becomes unmanageable. It is an addiction that interferes with one’s life, causing severe stress on the work environment, on family life and relationships, on school, etc., and the alteration of one’s moods. The excessive use of the internet has been shown to impair cognitive function, decision making, information integration, working memory and impulse control.
Why do people become addicted to the internet? Mostly because it is easily accessible, at any time of day or night. A person can go online whenever he wants, without anybody knowing, and thus giving the satisfying feeling of being in total control of his own life. Moreover, as it is the case with other addictions, going online gives some people a sort of “high,” an excitement lacking in their lives and not so easily attainable otherwise, which makes them to continue going online.
Can a person be “addicted” to pornography?
Pornography is any kind of material that explicitly exposes and/or describes sexual acts, aimed at provoking the sexual arousal of the recipient.
In a pastoral letter, Bishop Paul S. Loverde (Arlington, VA) has succinctly and forcefully described the evils of pornography: “In my nearly 50 years as a priest, I have seen the evil of pornography spread like a plague throughout our culture. What was once the shameful and occasional vice of the few has become the mainstream entertainment for the many—through the internet, cable, satellite and broadcast television, smart phones and even portable gaming and entertainment devices designed for children and teenagers. Never before have so many Americans been so tempted to view pornography. Never before have the accountability structures—to say nothing of the defenses which every society must build to defend the precious gift of her children—been so weak. This plague stalks the souls of men, women and children, ravages the bonds of marriage and victimizes the most innocent among us. It obscures and destroys people’s ability to see one another as unique and beautiful expressions of God’s creation, instead darkening their vision, causing them to view others as objects to be used and manipulated. It has been excused as an outlet for free expression, supported as a business venture, and condoned as just another form of entertainment. It is not widely recognized as a threat to life and happiness. It is not often treated as a destructive addiction. It changes the way men and women treat one another in sometimes dramatic but often subtle ways. And it is not going away.”
Pornography is Widespread
Truly, it is not going away… Judging for what we see around us, pornography has become both legal and socially acceptable, a matter of casual conversation, personal entertainment and widespread practice—it is at our fingertips on the internet, almost every neighborhood has an “adult store,” “erotica” is postulated as an artistic category…The statistics published by different research groups present a morally distressing picture.
The change in the social attitudes towards pornography has, in large part, been enabled and driven by technology. In the past, pornographic material was not too abundant or too easy to find; it had to be bought, and the simple fact of buying it exposed the buyer to some public scrutiny. All these factors had a deterrent effect on the use of pornography. With the advent of the internet, Wi-Fi and mobile devices, those deterrents have vanished. Pornography is now accessible anywhere, anytime, in any amount, and in every kind. It is affordable for everyone, since an enormous amount of it is available online for free. It allows the user to remain anonymous, invisible to the provider and to everyone else…In fact, statistics show that pornography has gone almost completely digital.
Pornography May Become an Addiction
Modern research shows that pornography use, especially over the internet, fits into the addiction framework and, as said above, shares similar basic mechanisms with drug addiction.
Pornography Inflicts a Grave Damage on Individuals and Society
In accordance with the will of God, creator of our nature, sexual relationships may only proceed in private, in the intimacy of the spouses, that is, then, within the framework of heterosexual marriage, and even then, only certain sexual acts are permitted. Pornography is a violent corruption of God’s design for the relations between husband and wife. Pornography use is a grave sin, an act of lust that vulgarizes the sexual acts represented and confuses them with the reality of human sexuality. It leads to indifference for long-term monogamous relationships and disinterest for procreation, and thus, it undermines the traditional values of marriage, family and children. As it offers only a temporary, perverted and unfulfilling excitement, it soon leads to the commission of other grave sins, such as masturbation, fornication, adultery, and unnatural acts.
Moreover, “children are harmed when pornography is used by adults. A society which accepts and uses pornography as if it were moral will not be able to teach children right from wrong on the topic of sexual ethics. Adults who use pornography are setting a bad example for children and teenagers. Children and teens eventually become aware of the existence and use of pornography by adults. Therefore, this usage by adults includes the sin of scandal. Also, when adults in society accept and use pornography, committing many gravely immoral sexual sins, some of those adults might also commit other sexual sins, such as the sexual abuse of children. A society that accepts pornography as if it were moral will not be able to rid itself of the sexual abuse of children, nor of other crimes such as rape and spousal abuse. The human person is harmed by pornography, and as a result, the whole of society is also harmed.”