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Digital Harm and Addiction: an Anthropological View

Published on
4 Feb 2020

Q&A with Doctoral Candidate Theodora Sutton

In her article “Digital Harm and Addiction: an Anthropological View“, published in Anthropology Today, OII DPhil student and digital anthropologist Theodora Sutton offers a new perspective on digital addiction. The paper is based on her findings from ethnographic fieldwork in a Californian “digital detox” retreat called Camp Grounded.

Theodora writes that while a lot of focus is given to the ways that technology may or may not be addictive or clinically harmful, it is helpful to consider how it is socially harmful. She argues that the concept of “digital harm” is better understood as an example of “medicalization”, and that “values, rather than clinical issues, are what are at stake in the conversation around digital addiction and harm.”  While many of us may worry about how to use technology healthily, Theodora argues that there is no one-size-fits-all, since the ways that technology may be harmful is dependent upon context.

David Sutcliffe caught up with Theodora to find out more about her work.

Digital devices are locked away at Camp Grounded.


What is Camp Grounded, and how did this research come about?


Camp Grounded is a “digital detox” retreat designed as a summer camp for adults, founded in the San Francisco Bay Area and held a few hours north in the Mendocino forest. Digital detoxing is the temporary removal of digital technology, whether it’s a weekend off the grid, deleting an account, or putting your phone on airplane mode for a few hours, often done to combat stress or improve overall wellbeing.

As someone who has grown up with the internet, I’ve always been interested in those who find that it feels dangerous or unnatural or embarrassing – why do people write on dating profiles that they’re “willing to lie about how we met”? What constitutes bad use, or too much use, and how do we decide what “good” or “appropriate” technology use looks like? Through my fieldwork at Camp Grounded I hoped to get to the heart of this conversation and see how it was playing out in this specific case.

The research has ended up speaking to the work of Dr Amy Orben and OII researcher Dr Andy Przbylski, who argue that despite the popular narrative, we don’t yet have definitive proof that technology is actively harmful or addictive. So if we haven’t proven it yet, why are we so keen to jump the gun? For me, it suggests that there’s something else going on with how we feel about technology.

In my new paper I argue that by placing digital non-use in social context, we can start to see how technology can threaten particular values. In this way, we can see the tensions that people are living with as they incorporate technology into their daily lives, and use that to better explain this concept of digital harm aside from any literal, clinical effects.

Do the camp-goers tend to change their technology use following the retreat, or do they basically get a much-needed break that resets them, but doesn’t much alter them?


That’s a great question – I don’t think it is only about technology use. My PhD thesis argues that detoxers felt the modern world in general was missing something vital to living a meaningful and healthy human life. One thing that often surprises people is that a lot of my participants joined a community Facebook group after they returned home from Camp Grounded. In fact, a lot of my fieldwork with them took place online.  The way they change their digital use is more of an attitude shift – they apply concepts from mindfulness to think about every small digital action, and consider whether it aligns with their overarching goals.

So, use or non-use, isn’t what matters the most to them; actually, digital use which helps them to feel connected to other people, or to help their career, could be seen as appropriate. They did make some small changes. Immediately after camp many of them bought analogue alarm clocks to avoid using their phone in bed, since they hoped to improve the quality of their sleep. But almost all of them gave up on them after a while, and brought the phone back to bed.

Reading your article, it struck me that perhaps the camps provide a means for people to gather in intense little groups – equivalent to school, college, house-shares, or other forms of structured sociality that tend to peter out in adulthood. How much is Camp Grounded about helping people who need to be validated / just need to spend a bit of time thinking about things, rather than about fixing “problematic digital technology use” per se?


Yes – it is definitely about making friends, and reuniting with them again each summer – since many of them returned year after year. Belonging to the community is deeply meaningful to many of them, and the camp becomes like their favourite football club, or band, or church. A lot of them wear Camp Grounded t-shirts with back in Oakland and San Francisco, and make even more friends that way too. I had someone approach me in LA after they saw the logo stuck to my laptop.

Detoxers feel that the modern, Western world is has lost a focus on community which humans originally evolved to rely on. So, they feel that the structure of American society is isolating people, and not encouraging them to be emotionally healthy, happy people. A lot of them are transplants to the Bay Area and have struggled to make friends, or feel a bit lost in life. But at the detox they felt a powerful sense of acceptance. It gives them the space to talk with kind listeners, gain perspective, and make adjustments to their lives when they return home. For those who enjoyed the therapeutic aspects of camp, it could be quite intense and transformative. A lot of them said that it changed their lives.

Village cheers performed on the main field at Camp Grounded, photo by Theodora

The retreat you describe basically sounds quite nice (well, if you like summer camps and being hugged a lot!)


Yes, it was a nice retreat in many ways! I’ve made some great friends there. The forest was gorgeous, there were amazing walking trails and swimming holes, a zip line, climbing wall, and they really made it feel like a festival. When people gather together with a united idea, it can be really heart-warming. The fact that it was temporary, had all that care put into it, and was cut off from the world, also makes it feel very special, almost like a secret club. At the same time, hugging exercises and “eye gazing” can be a little much.

Do digital detoxers feel that technology is literally addictive or dangerous?


I think they do. When I was at camp, we were given a handbook which suggested how we could change our behaviour, with each suggestion linked to a scientific study in neuroscience or psychology. For example, one fact was that you can receive a “burst of dopamine” or “oxytocin” from social media, and at camp you can receive it from a hug instead. But the argument that I make in this paper is that these clinical ideas are placeholders for something deeper. With “oxytocin”, I think they were really saying that there were more natural – and therefore better – ways to communicate aside from social media. If you picked the offline hug over social media you were doing the right thing.

This is really what the idea of “medicalization” is all about, when we societally use medical terms to refer to a behaviour which may or may not be literally harmful. We label things that way to perpetuate ideas of what is normal and acceptable – with digital detoxers, they did so to show how much they cared about becoming more emotionally healthy. Today, more than ever, we’ve generated an expectation to work on ourselves, our own brains, and our own emotional health. In the process, this relatively new technology is scrutinized, in case it poses an unprecedented threat to these new expectations.

In the paper I mention “selfie-itis” – used to describe someone who takes a lot of selfies. While I’m not a psychologist, I argue for the recognition of what productive work it does to label something like that as an illness, for example, demonstrating our disapproval of traits like vanity or shallowness. Using this logic, the idea of “Internet addiction” could be a way of saying that you don’t have strong self-control.

Your discussion of the “medicalisation” of certain behaviours is interesting, for example the labelling and pathologizing of things like “excessive internet use” as addictions. Are there other examples? I guess things like self-tracking (fad diets? the gym? self-help?) also occupy an awkward space between the clinical and the social?


Yes, I think self-tracking, fad diets, or self-help, are all in this awkward space. Going to the gym might be in a similar zone to using the internet, where clinical problems could potentially manifest themselves. It doesn’t mean that the gym itself causes problems, but maybe there are pressures that encourage us to do something to excess. Some people are arguing that in “problematic internet use” you may have people with a predisposition or problem, like social anxiety or depression, which is reflected in social media use, or even exacerbated by it.

But in fact, each technological advance has seen something similar to internet addiction – “Video games make people violent”; “Television turns us into mindless zombies”; “the telephone will make conversation more trivial.” There are also a lot of examples where ordinary things have been treated; shyness has been treated with therapy; women “refusing” to do housework were once given electro-shock therapy – through these you can look at the cultural context and see what purpose that example of medicalization serves.

So what is specific about this example? How much is Camp Grounded influenced by the counter-cultural, hippyish, Californian vibe?


The “Californian vibe” is really helpful in understanding Camp Grounded. For example, in the Bay Area, there is a history of counterculture and stepping outside of the mainstream; Camp Grounded is another example of experimenting with social norms and creating an intentional community to debate where American society is headed. The tech industry itself has its roots in Bay Area counterculture – but the Bay Area has changed dramatically because of the success and wealth of the tech industry, for example, people have become displaced and there’s a huge amount of homelessness. Camp Grounded was a way for neighbours of the tech industry to think carefully about how they should be reacting to that. Technology which might be available thousands of miles away also has these much more local impacts or interpretations, and so in the paper I argue that it’s important to think about these local factors when you look at an example of digital non-use like detoxing.

At one point you refer to the “elusive sense of the authentic”. I guess “authentic” is a terribly interesting and complex concept, which will shift depending on time and context. But are there any common threads in what people might be trying to reach for, when they make these appeals to the “authentic”?


One definition of “authentic” is “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.  If authenticity is what people seek when they remove their technology, what feels inauthentic about their lives beforehand – when arguably, anyone just going around living their life is living it authentically?  I think there are some common threads in Western culture which explain what the concept of “the authentic” might have meant to digital detoxers. One is the idea of returning to nature, or some kind of pre-modern village life. Modern, urban life today doesn’t look like a “tribe”. It’s individualised, and people live in structures that protect us from the elements, with comforts and entertainment. Each of these things can be seen to be inauthentic when viewed in terms of human history. But the story of “human history” is one that we create and re-write with new cultural desires mixed with scientific discoveries – the Paleo Diet is a good comparison here – the very desire to imitate the past is, when you think about it, laden with its own cultural baggage.

Redwood trees at Camp Grounded, photo by Theodora

I don’t think, personally, that there’s anything inherently wrong about “the digital”, but I guess (particularly with social media) I do worry about how incredibly awful and unthinking it’s possible to be; and how easy it is to assume one has a grasp of things, without really having read anything substantive at all.

But this is a different issue, perhaps? And what are our options in navigating this cataclysm of information? Presumably there’s the authentic, empathic, bread-baking woods-dweller at one extreme; the informed, rational and measured expert at the other; and a mess of chaotic and anxious thrashing about in the middle?


I think this is a very complicated problem. There are people at the OII who are researching fake news, and alt-right groups online, who are more specifically focusing on how the internet is shaping democracy and intolerance.  In terms of internet addiction, I think we’re living in a time when we want to live healthily and in accordance with new discoveries we are making about the human body and brain. But how do we choose which studies to listen to? I found that digital detoxers were blending studies in psychology and neuroscience with spirituality – interpreting information with their own ideas of what it means to live well. I wonder whether this is how science is being used in anti-tech conversations more generally.

I’ve never been to the Bay Area, but imagine it must be an incredibly rich site for anyone interested in the anthropology of the digital, i.e. representing (as you mention) the collision of industry (i.e. extreme accumulations of wealth and power) and the anarchic, countercultural freedom that we associate, certainly with the beginnings, of it all. I’m guessing there must be books about this central irony/tension – and about what exactly people in the industry articulate / imagine they’re doing? What should we be reading about this?


A study that really paints a picture of the area is the longitudinal ethnography by English-Lueck et al. Their work describes the diversity, wealth, meritocracy, inequality, and assumptions about wellbeing, amongst those living in Silicon Valley. It was Barbrook and Cameron who wrote “The Californian Ideology” which really summarises the paradoxes and tensions you’re talking about, while Fred Turner described the relationship between counterculture and technology, or things like Google employees going to Burning Man.

For technology removal and self-improvement, Nathan Jurgenson and Alex Beattie’s writing has been really helpful for me in mapping out what I found. Recently there has also been some great journalistic work focusing on the way that tech-workers-turned-whistle-blowers are working and running workshops at Esalen. Finally, there’s a brand new book by Anna Wiener called Uncanny Valley, based on her experience working in Silicon Valley, which is on my reading list.  My thesis will contribute to all of these conversations by foregrounding the tensions that the people are living with; what expectations are they under and how do they manage? I talk about magical rituals at camp, tech bros, Burning Man, and neuroscience, and offer many more stories about the people living in this tangle of technology and counterculture.

Read the full article: Sutton, T. (2020)  Digital Harm and Addiction: an Anthropological View, published in Anthropology Today. Theodora Sutton is a DPhil student and digital anthropologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Her upcoming thesis, “Digital Re-enchantment”, will provide a more in-depth discussion of her ethnography with digital detoxers.

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