Click click… boom: Life online – HOOKED at Science Gallery London

Science Gallery London opened just last month, a new KCL venue aiming to merge science and art, starting with their exhibition “HOOKED” which focuses, amongst other things, on the role the internet plays in feeding forms of addiction. As part of this exhibition, Roar attended a panel event entitled “Click click… boom: Life online” featuring four different speakers who are experts in the world of addictions. If you’ve never been to Science Gallery London, definitely check it out. It’s right by Guy’s bar, which was ironic when just leaving a talk about alcohol consumption, especially as there was a crowd gathering for Guy’s ‘Legendary Sports Night’.

The talk itself really leant into the whole ‘internet culture’ theme. It was very Ellen-esque when we were immediately instructed to reach under my seat and find emoji cutouts that we were to use to show our responses to questions, as well as a notification cutout to hold up when we wanted to ask a question.

 

Each speaker contributed a different perspective; Katriona Beales speaking about how addiction inspired her art and sculpture, Lauren-Marie Connolly explaining her work with Sesh Safety, an anonymous online harm reduction programme. Dr Paolo Deluca, a research fellow in addiction at King’s explaining her extensive research on misuse of alcohol and drugs, as well as the way that the internet has increased the availability of ‘legal highs’. Finally, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a practising psychiatrist who spoke about her clients’ own experiences with gambling, gaming, and shopping addictions.

 

Image courtesy of Science Gallery London

One interesting area explored in the talk was the interaction between addiction and capitalist culture. Katriona spoke about variable rewards schemes, a concept found years ago in an experiment on pigeons (which they were trying to train to guide missiles, just FYI). The pigeon had to peck a red dot, and in return was given a food pellet. Initially, every time it pecked, it got a pellet, but then the researcher changes the experiment so that only after a random number of pecks would a pellet be released. The pigeon went into hyperdrive, with one pecking 87,000 times over 14 hours. When it comes to addiction, we effectively become the pigeon. Slot machines work on exactly this principle, and silicone valley is deliberately using it to get us hooked on their tech. An addict is the most loyal customer you can have, making it in companies’ best interest to wire your brain into dependence.

After the talk Roar managed to grab Dr Deluca for a couple of follow-up questions about his work on addiction:

So my first question is; we’re still teaching an abstinence only drug education. Do you think that’s wise or should we be taking more of a risk management approach?

Well that’s a challenging question [laughs]. I would say that it’s challenging in the sense that it’s obviously got some limitations to say to kids “Don’t do things” and it’s a prevention policy that hasn’t really worked so far. But on the other hand, condoning using drugs is difficult for an institution like a school to do. Schools have a policy that is mostly run by the government, so they bring that message. For me, as an academic, I know the risks of alcohol and drugs, so I advise not to use drugs or drink in excess but I recognise that this approach has limits. The better approach is to have a conversation, they might have previous use of drugs so what they bring to the conversation is personal experience. In that sense, a harm reduction policy is what is needed because they’re already using it, and stopping is not achievable in many situations. But I don’t think it should be the first line of approaching this. “

Why do you think that it is that adolescents in the UK drink more than other European nations? Could the internet use that we’ve been hearing about tonight tie into this, an online glorification of binge drinking culture?

That’s possible but the latest figures we’ve seen on teenagers and young adults drinking seem to show that this culture is changing. There’s a new generation of young people coming up who are not drinking, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and this is a complete change in direction from 20 years ago when we had an increase in alcohol. Even through Britain and other Nordic countries are still on average drinking a bit more than other European countries, the direction is going in the right way. A lot of differences between countries are about culture, how you approach yourself and alcohol, what alcohol is giving you – is this part of your meal, or something you drink with friends, a social event or drinking on your own?

The take home message of the night was not the baby-boomer stereotype of “the internet is rotting your brain”, but a more balanced look at our increasingly technological world. The internet has a wealth of advantages, but can also enable addicts in accessing drugs, pornography, shopping, gaming, gambling – whatever your vice, it’s available with just a couple of clicks.

Look out for more events on at the Science Gallery throughout the year.

Cover photo: Katriona Beales

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