“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t see people come in with Q-tip-related injuries,” laments Jennifer Derebery, an inner-ear specialist in Los Angeles.
And yet there’s a scary warning on every box of Q-tips. It reads, “CAUTION: Do not enter ear canal. … Entering the ear canal could cause injury.” How is it that the one thing most people do with cotton swabs is also the thing manufacturers explicitly warn them not to do? It’s not just that people do damage to their ears, it’s that they keep doing damage.
Some even call it an addiction. On an online forum, Q-tip user associates ear swabbing with dependency: “How can I detox from my Q-tips addiction?” MADtv ran a classic sketch on a daughter having to hide Q-tip use from her parents like a junkie.
What if Q-tips really do share something in common with other, more prevalent addictions like gambling, heroin, and even Facebook use? When a perceived solution to a problem becomes the problem, the resulting behavior shares something in common with addiction. The phenomenon raises some important questions about everyday products, and the responsibilities their makers have in relation to the welfare of their users.
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Some clinicians define addiction as a harmful, persistent, and compulsive dependency on a behavior or substance. But unlike other vices, addiction also implies self-inflicted damage. Simply doing something a lot, like checking Facebook or watching television, wouldn’t qualify as addiction unless the user has difficulty stopping the activity even though it harms them.