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Everything wrong with the new Google Glass addiction claims

Bad science is worse than no science at all. 


Taylor Hatmaker


Posted on Oct 15, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 9:51 am CDT

As reported in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a 31-year-old man addicted to Google Glass was observed as he underwent treatment for abusing alcohol—the thing he was actually addicted to. The paper, haphazardly summarized far and wide, is exactly the sort of pop science nonsense that the Internet loves. Naturally, few stories on the case study appear to have read the source material, a paywalled paper called “Internet addiction disorder and problematic use of Google Glass in patient treated at a residential substance abuse treatment program.” Emphasis on “patient” singular. As in one person. 

As the study mentions, the patient suffers from Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) a behavioral condition originally proposed as a joke in 1995. The original description of the pseudo-disorder, modeled after the DSM’s description of gambling addiction, describes an array of withdrawal symptoms including irritability and “voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers”—symptoms noted nearly verbatim in the case of the alcoholic Google Glass user under treatment in San Diego.

The “study,” conducted by Kathryn Yung, Erin Eickhoff, Diane L. Davis, Warren P. Klam, and Andrew P. Doan, all members of San Diego’s Naval Medical Center, declares boldly that “This is the first reported case of Internet addiction disorder involving the problematic use of Google Glass.” It’s worth noting then, that Internet addiction disorder is not actually a diagnosis recognized by the psychiatric community, but those words do sound nice together. 

The case study notes that “frustration and irritability” were observed as the patient withdrew “from excessive use of Google Glass.” Of course, it violates one of the most basic tenets of the scientific method by implying causality where there is none, without having controlled for any variables (there were a lot of variables). It proceeds to draw meaningless conclusions from a single happenstance anecdote of a guy in alcohol withdrawal who also happened to like Google Glass.

“Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is characterized by the problematic use of online video games, computer use, and mobile handheld devices. While not officially a clinical diagnosis according to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), individuals with IAD manifest severe emotional, social, and mental dysfunction in multiple areas of daily activities due to their problematic use of technology and the Internet.”

To date, the only Internet-related condition the DSM makes mention of is “Internet Gaming Disorder” which it doesn’t define but rather points to as an area for future research.

The paper goes on to comment on the documented “medical dangers” of heads-up displays like Google Glass, which, with equal if not greater anecdotal validity, I’d argue against until I’m blue in the face. As a Google Glass owner, I can say that in my also completely scientifically invalid case study (n=1; n=me) that Glass makes driving leagues safer, by wholly removing the temptation to glance away from the road, making it significantly safer than even a dash-mounted dedicated GPS system. Of course, Yung et al. cite research from seven years before Google Glass even existed to substantiate this vague claim.

The paper then goes on to describe the plight of this patient, a 31-year-old Afghanistani suffering from a whole host of things that aren’t his addiction to Google Glass, including but not limited to a mood disorder, hypomania, a depressive disorder, social phobia, and alcohol and tobacco. He drank about six beers a day (fairly standard alcoholic behavior) and reportedly used Glass “up to 18 hours per day”

The patient had been wearing the Google Glass device each day for up to 18 h for two months prior to admission, removing the device during sleep and bathing. He was given permission by his superiors to use the device at work, as the device allowed him to function at a high level by accessing detailed and complicated information quickly.

The patient shared that he was able to take photos of convoy vehicles and tag those photos with identifying numbers and equipment lists related to each vehicle. Additionally, the patient shared that the Google Glass increased his confidence with social situations, as the device frequently became an initial topic of discussion.

That’s all well and good, but there’s absolutely no way this guy was squeezing 18 hours out of a device infamous for its poor battery life. Again, in my equally valid as-of-yet unpublished case study observing myself, Glass lasts maybe four hours on a good day. With frequent use—which one would assume in a case of Google Glass addiction—Glass would probably last two hours tops before needing a charge. In my own study of equal validity, the battery life problem worsened over time with subsequent software updates.

In the recovery program, the treatment team didn’t allow the patient access to Google Glass. He reportedly stated that “The withdrawal from [Glass] is much worse than the withdrawal I went through from alcohol,” which is not only physiologically impossible but also hopefully a joke.

The researchers proceed to describe his exotic visions of Google Glass as though they’ve really got their hands on something here:

“He noted that when he dreamed during his residential treatment, he envisioned the dream through the device. He would experience the dream through a small gray window, which was consistent with what he saw when wearing the device while awake.”

A few sentences later, the authors admit that the patient expressed “no unusual thought content” and only “almost craved” the device.

Much is made of the patient’s “notable, nearly involuntary movement of the right hand up to his temple area” which he would periodically tap with his forefinger because the dude wears Glass a lot. Consistent with symptoms for actual substance withdrawal, the patient’s memory appeared impaired during an examination at the time he was admitted, a fact used to support the flimsy claims that Glass and not alcohol is this guy’s real problem.

I’m not tearing this horrible little publication to pieces because I’m a Google Glass apologist or because the idea of Internet addiction doesn’t merit further exploration—it certainly does, especially with virtual reality looming ambiguously on the horizon. For one, I used to work in clinical psychiatry and some of the addiction research I conducted was later published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. But mostly this kind of stuff gets under my skin because the intersection of consumer technology and psychology stands to produce a wealth of compelling mental health research, if there’s anyone interested and well funded enough to look. In the meantime, shoddy, fearmongering pseudo-science like the case of the Google Glass addict who wasn’t only spreads misinformation and obscures the actual conversations we need to be having.

How is technology rewiring our brains? Does technology make us happy or sad? I have no idea, but I look forward to reading the answers elsewhere, in real research.

Photo via Google

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*First Published: Oct 15, 2014, 4:17 pm CDT