Should We Worry About the World Becoming More Addictive? Q&A with Nir Eyal
Nir’s Note: This Q&A recently appeared on the 15five.com blog and it pulled out some thoughts I’ve been chewing on regarding technology, addiction, and our relationship with the products we use. I’ve edited it slightly and hope you find it interesting.
Question: Pokémon GO is all the rage right now. Can you talk about that in the context of a habit forming product? Is it negative or positive?
Nir Eyal: We have to think of technology in the broader context of the environment that we live in. The knee jerk reaction that always occurs with a new technology is that we don’t like it. We are averse to change and fear new technologies.
When you think about Pokémon (which is a lot less revolutionary than other technologies) in the context of what else people could be doing with their time, I think it’s pretty good. Pokémon can be considered one of the first mainstream fitness apps with wide appeal, that just so happens to be disguised as a game. You can’t play it sitting in your living room. Compare it to Clash of Clans or Candy Crush, that are not social and very sedentary.
Q: People are so engrossed in the game that they are actually getting injured. What is the difference psychologically or physiologically between habit and all-out addiction? Is Pokémon an addiction or just lack of awareness.
NE: A habit is just a behavior done with little or no conscious thought, about 40% of the behavior that you do every day is impulsive. Habits can be good or bad, but addictions by definition are always bad. An addiction is a persistent compulsive dependency on a behavior or substance that hurts the user.
There should be a rule that any sufficiently good and popular technology will form an addiction. But if a user is not harmed and the behavior is not something that the user can’t stop without assistance, then it’s not an addiction. When we look at Pokémon GO, it doesn’t really pass that test. It’s enjoyable, engaging, and habit forming. And yes, some folks won’t be able to stop and will become addicted. What to do about them is a different ethical question.
The good news is that for the first time in history, people who are making products that are potentially addictive can mitigate the harm. Addiction is nothing new, but now the maker of an addictive product knows who the addicts are. Distillers of alcohol don’t have that much insight into the identities or behaviors of end users, so there’s not much they can do for them. With companies who create products like Facebook, Instagram, or Pokémon GO that will create addicts, they could do something if they wanted to.
As I work with these companies and consult them, I know that those addicted are a small number, only 1–2% of the population. But for those small percentage of users I think these companies do have an ethical responsibility, and I increase awareness of this issue to encourage them to do something about it.
For most of us however, what most people flippantly call an “addictive product,” like Pokemon Go or Facebook, is just an engaging products. But would we want it any other way? No, we want products that we enjoy using. The vast majority of people know when they are using these products too much, and they opt to self-regulate.
Q: In Hooked you raise the ethical question of manipulation. Research is emerging that overuse of social media (if not outright addiction) has negative impacts on mental health. Couldn’t Google, Facebook, and Twitter get ahead of inevitable tech-burnout by advocating for something like an hour of downtime each day, even factoring the disruption to the revenue stream?
NE: What we’re seeing already is the proliferation of what I call attention retention devices — technologies specifically designed to block out the triggers and distractions from other technologies. Here are some examples that I use:
- DF YouTube is a Chrome browser plugin that gets rid of all of the videos on the sidebar of YouTube. This prevents me from watching one video after another.
- Facebook News-feed Eradicator prevents something engineered to suck me in, from distracting me.
- I never read an article on my desktop, I always save it to Pocket. The app removes all of the ads and links to other articles. I reward myself when going to the gym by listening to these articles later.
Companies would be wise if instead of making it so difficult to leave sometimes, they would make it easier to moderate use. Instead of users burning-out and abandoning altogether, these companies can help us moderate.
This is the challenge of our generation, the first to grow up with interactive technology from birth. We are struggling with trying to figure out how to put tech in its place, even though it’s great and interesting and meets our needs so well.
Information today is no longer scarce. I’m a Gen-Xer, and when I was applying to college I received pamphlets in the mail boasting the size of their libraries. Today information is abundant, but knowledge and insight is scarce. To gain insight we need information, but also the attention and focus to process that information into knowledge. What will differentiate success from failure, and contributors from consumers, will be our ability to focus and control our attention. How will we think deeply and get our work done when there is so much distraction out there?
By the way, this is not really new. Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of akrasia — the tendency to do things against our interests. We have always had distraction in our lives. When we have to do hard work, we try to weasel out. What has changed is the medium. Maybe for our grandparents it was reading a trashy novel. Maybe for our parents it was radio or TV. Today the new medium is interactive technology, but we’re not hopeless to fight it.
Q: I deactivated my Facebook account this week, but I need to post to social media as part of my job. Any suggestions for managers to disrupt negative employee habits regarding social media? Are there any companies that impose these protocols?
NE: So your question is, “as a social media manager, how do I avoid social media?” (Nir and I laugh.) I think the deeper concern is not how to eradicate it altogether, but how to prevent it from creeping into areas of our life where it doesn’t belong.
There are all kinds of things you can do to address that. Speak to your employer about your company culture to see what’s expected. Are you expected to be at the company’s beck and call 24/7? If so you need to know that and maybe you’re not okay with it. Many employers will provide some guidance as to expectations of performance when managing social media and email over a specific time period each day.
Employees should discover how much time they are expected to do what Cal Newport calls Deep Work — that’s thinking and producing as opposed to reacting. You cannot tweet repeatedly while you are writing an article or working in your reflection time.
The other question that I think is more severe is, “what if I don’t like social media at all?” In that case, I don’t see a difference from picking any sort of profession that doesn’t comply with your preferences. For example, I like nature but I don’t like working outdoors all day. Being a forest ranger would not be a good career for me.
We should ask ourselves what suits our temperament. Just because something is a hot field, you don’t have to necessarily work in that field. And if you do like it, then keep it in your professional life and don’t let it bleed over into other segments like your personal time.
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