Smoking. Drugs. Alcohol abuse. Self-Mutilation. Gambling. Emotional-Eating. I think everyone would agree that these are unhealthy addictive behaviors. We have all seen enough public service announcements and heard enough lectures from authority figures to make that connection. But what about smartphones, social media, and video games? Does the usage thereof represent addictive behaviors and, if so, are these behaviors “good” or “bad”? My contention, based on the ridiculous reactions of my children when I take them away (along with some other more “scientific” research), is that such technologies are engineered to fuel smartphone, internet, and other related technology addictions. Further, I believe that the primary goal of such manipulation is for businesses to make money at the expense of our well being…and that’s bullshit.
I recently read a book called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter that seems to support my thinking on the topic. Perhaps by chance (but is anything really chance?), I very quickly thereafter saw a segment on 60 Minutes with a former Google employee named Tristan Harris, that further solidified my viewpoint. Both of these were excellent, eye-opening accounts of just how oblivious most people are to the manipulation that is happening and to the impact that such manipulations are having on their lives. As pointed out in both sources noted above, the difference between the set of addictions listed at the beginning of this post and technology addiction is that, with technology addiction, “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation that you have.”, according to Harris. So it’s you…against thousands of engineers that are conspiring to manipulate you by using state of the art technology and decades of research on behavioral psychology. What chance does an unsuspecting adult looking to unwind after a long, hard day at the office have against those odds? And if adults, with their fully-developed pre-frontal cortex, have difficulty resisting such allure, what chances do our children have? (It’s rhetorical…I think you can guess where I’m going with that)
Alter’s book starts out describing how Steve Jobs refused to let his children use the very iPad that he designed, in fact stating “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Harris then goes on to cite numerous examples of technology icons that severely limit screen time for both themselves and their kids for fear of behavioral addiction (at worst) and stifled social development/interaction (at best). These are folks that sat around the table when these devices and social media sites were being conceived. They have unique, insider knowledge about the thought process that went into the design, about how to attract and retain customers, and about how to monetize such technologies. And if these people seem to have some worry about unbridled technology consumption, I think it behooves the rest of us to at least give pause to consider that fact. It’s like when a CEO suddenly sells all of his stock options while simultaneously telling investors why they should load up on his company’s stock because of the unparalleled growth prospects…something just doesn’t add up.
Alter goes on to describe in detail how technology companies utilize six key mechanisms to engineer behavioral addiction:
- Social Interaction
Look around at any mainstream social media platform or app and you’ll undoubtedly see the majority of these built into the design. And these mechanisms are not just randomly chosen…they are rooted in psychology and scientific research. They prey on your state-of-mind and brain chemistry (think dopamine) to hijack your free will. And these companies have all the cards stacked against you because they can analyze data from their multitudes of users to understand which colors produce the most user response, which wording choices produce the most clicks, and the best time to “nudge” you with reminders to bring you back to their site/game/app so that they can sell more advertising.
Look, I’m not some crazy, technology-hating guy that wants to live off the grid because Big Brother is getting to close for comfort. I just think it makes sense to take a step back and really look at how you’re spending your time in light of what you are trying to achieve in life. Technology can be a wonderful, time-saving and life-enriching tool if selected appropriately and used moderately. If abused, it can rob you of true fulfillment and happiness. If you step back and realize that you have difficulty putting a few steps between you and your technology…and it’s affecting your life (i.e. phantom vibrating pocket phones, paying for virtual neighbors to feed your virtual farm animals while you’re on vacation, checking emails at 3am just because you woke up, checking your Facebook and Instagram accounts for new Likes every two minutes, etc.), check out some books on behavior addiction or habits formation to devise some helpful strategies to break the stranglehold. One of my favorites is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life & Business by Charles Duhigg. I’ve also written a little about habits and provided a couple resources on one of my previous posts entitled Set it, and Forget It! (Habits that is…not chicken).
And finally, if you have children, you owe it to them to act like an adult and make decisions in their best interest. Children don’t take the long-view in life just by virtue of the fact that their brains are not fully developed…they seek immediate, self-gratification every time without fail! They rely on you to guide them…even if they can’t understand exactly why spending three straight hours with their faces aglow, 2-inches away from their iPhone just before bedtime is a bad thing. Look for technology that requires active engagement and creativity rather than passive consumption. Look for applications that make learning fun but still teach valuable lessons. Encourage them to find their self-worth outside of Likes. Set boundaries and make screen time a privilege. And then cut them off and kick them out the front door to get a little dirt on their shoes and some good ole fashion human interaction and fresh air.
Here’s a fun clip from Louis CK talking about kids and cell phones if you’ve not heard it before: