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Image credit: Stuart McMillen Stuart McMillen

At a recent unschooling workshop, the issue of technology use came up. Some parents expressed concern over the potential addictive nature of technology. With unschoolers having far more autonomy over their lives, the risk of excess use seems much higher, particularly without the natural time constraints of school attendance and homework.

“Video games and social media are as addictive as drugs,” someone said, to nods of agreement from other parents “They’re designed to reel kids in and keep them hooked.”

I thought immediately of Rat Park. Because if we accept the parallel between drug addiction and technology addiction, we need to do so while understanding the implications of Rat Park.

We all know the story of rats in little lab cages demonstrating severe addictive behaviour when offered drugs like cocaine and morphine. Experiments like these supposedly proved the biologically-driven nature of addiction, and helped spur the entire war on drugs. But then there was the Rat Park experiment. I’d encourage everyone to read the story on Stuart McMillen’s site. It’s beautifully explained there, but in essence a researcher at SFU named Bruce Alexander wondered whether the severe environmental deprivation of the experimental rats in their lonely cage-and-drug worlds might be playing a role. He provided similarly tempting drug cocktails, but instead of solo cages he put the experimental subjects in Rat Park. It was a larger complex of interesting play-things, various terrain, hidey-holes, and other rats. The rats were able to do normal rat stuff. They could climb and run about and play, engage in ratty social lives, hunker down in a private place if they wished, and then return to engage with others.

While the rats in Rat Park did drink some of the drug-laden solution, they avoided it until it was made so sweet that they couldn’t resist, and yet still their intake was minimal and they didn’t exhibit hallmarks of addiction. The drug just wasn’t a problem for the rats of Rat Park: it had no demonic hold on them.

Maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe the problem was the cage as much as, or even more than, the drug.

The take-home message for me? If you have a child who has an apparent addictive relationship with technology, don’t demonize the technology. Instead look at his environment. Has he unwittingly ended up in the human equivalent of a little wire cage? Does he need meaningful, self-actualizing activities and variety of social relationships? Does he need someone to help him build his own Rat Park?

Building Rat Park

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