Socially Acceptable Addictions

How could an addiction be socially acceptable? It’s truly a matter of semantics – and of the tolerance of the addict’s peer group. Generally, we avoid using words such as addiction, problematic, or out of control for behaviours that we consider socially acceptable – even when excessive. The term addiction is usually reserved for that which we deem socially inappropriate or deviant; and the specific behaviours encapsulated by that label vary according to social customs and standards of time and place. What does that mean?

Simply put, it’s difficult to view consuming illegal drugs, such as cocaine, as acceptable in social settings; however, consider the same behaviour from a different perspective: if everyone attending a party has partaken in cocaine, then the one person abstaining will be viewed as “outside” the norm and seen as less socially acceptable. Even cigarette smoking is increasingly viewed as an intolerable habit, though our grandparents’ and even our parents’ generations favoured the use of tobacco products.

For most of society, certain addictions are permissible, or even encouraged – especially those grounded in consumerism: a love of food, the reliance on caffeine, having a glass of wine with dinner or a cocktail with friends, the use of painkillers (either with a prescription or over-the-counter), dedication to one’s job, physical fitness, shopping, light gambling such as an occasional Bingo Night or Casino trip, and even casual sex (whether within or outside of relationships) are all tolerated by most of society. We will even turn a blind eye to mild transgressions such as one drinking binge, or the executive who spends more than 60 hours at the office every week – so long as no one is hurt, we don’t feel the need to step in and intervene in our loved one’s life. As long as the addict seems to be in control of themselves, and is able to mostly resist temptation, society chooses to ignore their occasional lapse

In truth, any of these seemingly innocent – and far too common – behaviours can be harmful if taken to excess: one wild weekend devolves into drinking to excess every Friday and Saturday night, and then daily. Even children and teens are at risk; the Society for the Study of Addiction discusses methods to diagnose internet gaming disorder – an addiction to video games. At what point should we step in to curb the addictive behaviours of those around us, of those we care for, those we love?

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