You’re addicted to your smartphone. I’m addicted to my smartphone. The products and services we use on a daily basis have been designed to steal our attention and are continuously modified to become more addictive.
In many ways, attention is the lifeblood of modern business. For massive tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and many others, there is a direct correlation between attention and growth/revenue/success.
The recent evolution of technology raises many ethical and psychological questions. Are we being manipulated? Should we have more control? Do we truly understand the negative impacts of technology addiction?
A Recipe for Addiction
Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, emphasizes the fact that human beings have been susceptible to behavioral addiction throughout history (long before smartphones). However, the technologies that have emerged over the past decade have drastically amplified these tendencies.
Our addictions cause us to miss out on so many moments that we will never have the opportunity to relive.
After reading this book, it’s evident that our addiction to modern technology boils down to some key elements that feed off one another:
- Variable Rewards
Each time you visit Facebook, you may have five notifications, you may have none. Your recent photo may have 12 Likes, it may have 270. This variable reward system is captivating for obvious reasons and always keeps users coming back for more. It’s a slot machine. Every reward is unique. The feedback you receive from any given post updates in real-time and changes every minute. This gambling mentality is difficult to resist and makes us feel the need to return frequently.
Boredom is our worst enemy, so we will do anything to avoid it — even if it’s something that make us less happy. In Alter’s book, he references a fascinating experiment from 2014 in which people actually preferred to shock themselves than sit alone with their thoughts for 20 minutes. Many of us would prefer chaos over predictability in our daily lives, and social media reinforces this notion because it’s a feedback loop that becomes more arresting the more we use it.
- Stopping Cues
In 2012, Netflix officially launched the binge-watching revolution with the rollout of auto-play across its entire platform. Soon enough, Facebook and YouTube adopted the same feature. This, of course, has led to a skyrocketing increase in video usage since then. On top of that, infinite scrolling has also become a mainstream design element in social media. The content never stops, which is how five minutes turns into 30 minutes — without the user even realizing it.
- Vanity Metrics
In our culture, people are consumed by the constant pursuit of arbitrary numerical goals as a result of real-time feedback. You just ran ten miles. Walked 10,000 steps. Your post got 100 shares. You received your 1,000th follower. You surpassed all of your friends for the longest Snapstreak (the worst of all). These “micro-victories” don’t mean anything, but they provide us with a dopamine hit each time, and their increasing frequency drives us to spend more time and strive to hit new trivial goals on a regular basis.
The recipe for addiction is potent, and the scariest part is that these various factors cause people to avoid face-to-face interactions, spend less time with family and friends, and even risk their lives. Our addictions cause us to miss out on so many moments that we will never have the opportunity to relive.
Alter’s 2017 TED Talk “Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy” is an excellent synopsis of these issues and well worth your time.
Most people simply don’t understand how much time they spend on their devices, and Irresistible explores many of the alarming ways that technology has invaded our lives over the past decade. Our lack of self-awareness is one of the most troubling signs of this epidemic.
I realize that I’m dependent on these companies to make a living, but one of the main reasons for my concern is because their advertising platforms work.
A few years ago, designer/developer Kevin Holesh created an eye-opening app called Moment that allows people to track their day-to-day screen time and smartphone habits. Across the board, the results are consistent: people severely underestimate their time spent on mobile devices.
On average, we check our phones every six minutes, 150 times a day. Even when your smartphone is turned off, its presence alone has been proven to reduce your cognitive capacity. And in less than two decades, our face-to-face time with friends and family has decreased by nearly 30 percent.
There’s no denying that we’re enamored by technology for obvious reasons, but the concern is that we don’t understand the consequences of our behavior. In fact, many smartphone users are in denial about the level of distraction caused by our devices.
James Williams, a former Google employee and advocate for ethical design, believes social networks inhibit our ability to think clearly and ultimately affect us like a drug. The attention economy revolves around designing for addiction, so he believes that it “privileges our impulses over our intentions.”
To be honest, I personally feel as though I’m not helping the problem. For nearly a decade, I’ve been managing large-scale Facebook advertising and Google AdWords campaigns across a wide variety of industries. And the recent shift to mobile (i.e. addiction) has been massive on both channels.
The irony is not lost on me. I realize that I’m dependent on these companies to make a living, but one of the main reasons for my concern is because their advertising platforms work. Really well. Some might say scary well.
This is the reason why they own the digital advertising industry. Savvy advertisers all around the world drive billions of dollars in revenue targeting users on social and search, and the data that Facebook and Google have at their disposal will only become more powerful over time.
The Facebook Problem(s)
On the surface, Facebook is the most obvious offender of catering to people’s addictive and primitive tendencies. Even the company’s former president Sean Parker recently stated that Facebook’s initial objective was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”
People don’t trust Facebook. And there has been a lot of momentum behind the fact that social media can negatively affect your emotional well-being. In response, Facebook vowed to make changes to the product after finally admitting that content on its platform can make people “feel worse” after leaving the site. The latest News Feed update, however, is only the beginning.
Roger McNamee, a successful venture capitalist and former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, believes that major changes to the business have to occur before users notice a difference. His opinion is that nothing will improve with Facebook or Google “unless they abandon their current advertising models.”
McNamee and many others agree that Facebook in particular has a responsibility to fix the problem. And let’s be honest… they’ve got a few of them. But it’s clear that fake news is bane of their existence right now.
In 2016, Zuckerberg famously denied the idea that fake news could become prevalent on the platform. Former President Barack Obama even warned them about this matter before Donald Trump’s election, but they didn’t listen and the rest is history. Now we’re facing a situation where users will only become more susceptible to manipulation and falsehoods as they spend more time on the world’s largest social network.
John Battelle, CEO of NewCo, has some interesting ideas about how Facebook could proceed, but argues that federal regulation for Silicon Valley is a must. And some lawmakers are outraged at the lack of regulation to date.Facebook has no issue changing its platform on a regular basis (for users and advertisers alike), but it might be time to start considering a serious shift in the way it extracts revenue from attention. As it stands now, any form of engaging content equals profit whether it’s positive, negative, or simply false.
Devices and Children
We can critique social media, apps and games all day, but it’s important to note that the root of the problem began with the release of the iPhone in 2007. Since then, nothing has been the same.
By all accounts, Apple’s marquee product is a phenomenal invention that has changed lives and revolutionized industries, but the addictive nature of the device (and smartphones in general) is clear as day. And unfortunately we still don’t understand the long-term impact on children who have grown up with them,and whose parents don’t know any better.
I’m also fearful that the manipulative tactics and addictive behavior are only increasing in magnitude with each generation.
Recently, two major Apple investors voiced their concerns about smartphone addiction in an open letter to the Cupertino-based company. This is a major step is the right direction because young children are spending more time with devices every day. The numbers are alarming:
- A whopping 40 percent of children ages 0–8 have their own iPad.
- The average time spent on mobile devices each day for ages 0–8 increased by 860 percent (from five to 48 minutes) between 2011 and 2017.
- On average, children under the age of 18 pull out their devices nearly twice as often as adults.
At the end of 2017, Facebook added insult to injury by releasing an app for young children ages six to 12 called Messenger Kids, which has already stirred up a great deal of controversy. As a parent, there are many reasons to be concerned. So what do we do now?
Time Well Spent
Tristan Harris, another former Google employee and expert on technology addiction, has been at the forefront of this conversation for the past few years. His plea is for Silicon Valley companies to take a more thoughtful approach to design and alter the way they develop their products and business models.
In a practice that Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” tech firms continue to borrow tactics from one another aimed at making us more addicted: auto-play videos (Netflix, YouTube, Facebook), photo-tagging (Facebook, Google, Instagram), the ‘Like’ button (Facebook, then everyone else), push notifications (everyone). The list goes on.
In another fantastic TED Talk, he explains how this prioritization of attention is simply another way of manipulating users for financial gain.
Harris, along with a handful of other ex-Silicon Valley employees, recently launched an inspiring project called the Center for Humane Technology. The idea is to build a dedicated community of former tech insiders who are working to fix the “digital attention crisis” and create a new model.
What began as a small movement known as “Time Well Spent” has exploded into a national conversation, with Harris leading the charge. The challenge that lies ahead is not a small one. But given the current pace of technology, I would argue that we don’t have any other choice.
It’s easy to be overly negative, but I certainly don’t want to downplay the importance of technology and the opportunities it presents us. My entire career has revolved around advancements in tech and I’m grateful for that. However, I’m also fearful that the manipulative tactics and addictive behavior are only increasing in magnitude with each generation.
As parents of a two-year-old and two-month-old, my wife and I have been intentional about discussing technology usage and ensuring that any screen time feels like a social — not isolated — activity. But we are not perfect. Occasionally I am guilty of using my phone instead of simply being with my children in the moment, which makes me feel terrible because every minute is so precious. I know I can do better.
Being mindful and present goes a long way, but these tech companies aren’t making it any easier on us. Putting a child in front of a screen is one of the easiest, quickest ways to make him or her seem “happier” in the short term. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There is ample evidence to support the fact that extensive screen time is damaging young children. And while removing screens entirely is practically impossible, we have to remain aware of the fact that isolating children with screens is harmful to their development. The starting point is to acknowledge addiction and recognize that children are more vulnerable than anyone.
Silicon Valley, meanwhile, needs to harness its power to limit addiction through conscious, ethical product development. Digital media shouldn’t be viewed as a vending machine where attention turns into money without consequences. The negative effects are abundant and will only become more glaring as the race for our attention heats up.
In the meantime, track your smartphone habits. Use apps that make you feel better about yourself. Turn off unnecessary notifications. Hold yourself accountable. Set boundaries with your children. As adults, we must accept and understand own our addiction before we can encourage or expect more mindful behavior from our children. Easier said than done, but more important now than ever before.