So, how did our entire society become addicted to our smartphones and other devices without even noticing what was happening? Of course, there were some major flashpoints along the way, such as the introduction of the iPhone, Facebook, and YouTube. But I believe we got here through small, inconspicuous changes that seemed harmless at the time, but taken together, have made us completely hooked to the little device in all of our pockets.
1992 : Texting
The first real step in our addiction journey began when Nokia and Vodafone introduced the ability to send short text messages through their mobile phones. It actually took years for this feature to take off — remember how hard it was to peck out just a few words using the dialpad? — but a new kind of communication was born: the ability to interact with other people instantly without the emotional effort of actually seeing or talking to them.
1996 : The first meme
It was a dancing baby that drove the world crazy and, for the first time, everyone wanted to share a video or animated GIF with everyone they knew. Virality was born. The term “going viral” would later become shorthand for the latest meme or trend sweeping the interwebs.
1997 : Group chat
What’s better than exchanging messages with a friend? Exchanging messages with a whole bunch of them! ICQ and AOL made it possible. And so we took another step toward less physical interaction because group texting is so much more efficient than hanging out with your friends in real life (or IRL)!
2003 : The selfie
People have been taking pictures of themselves since photography was invented, but Sony helped popularize the “selfie” when it released the first phone with a front-facing camera in the Ericsson Z1010. Then the release of the iPhone 4 in 2010 enabled users to produce selfies easier than ever. MySpace, Flickr, and later Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat drove the selfie-sharing madness we know today. With the new Me-Generation, sharing your duckface is just, like, the best.
2005 : First cat video
Although the first-ever cat video was not impressive, it was followed by more than two million cat videos and 25 billion views. Cat videos became synonymous with wasting time online. For some reason I still cannot understand, cat videos make people happy. It also took us a step closer to being addicted to our screens. Wait, my friend just texted me… oh… he’s sooooooo cute….
2006 : Infinite scrolling
Up to now, you needed to actively click on a button or a link to go to the next page on a website. But Facebook changed everything.
The basic human compulsion to see what’s next was productized — or should I say “weaponized” — by Facebook in 2006 when the social network released the infinite scrolling feature. No need to take any action to see what’s next on the page; you just keep scrolling and scrolling. Since there’s never an end in sight, we kept spending more and more time trying to accomplish a goal that cannot be accomplished. I’ll stop reading as soon as I get to the bottom of my Facebook newsfeed…
2007 : The iPhone
This may be the biggest milestone on our addiction journey. Apple’s smartphone made surfing the web, texting, and emailing so easy and pleasurable on a small, hand-held device, it sparked a revolution in the mobile web. It also fueled another revolution: the rise of social media. No doubt, the iPhone is an amazing and important device that is helping us listen to music, books, and podcasts, read the news, help us drive to our next meeting, find a place to eat, and so much more. However, it is also the reason that your teen can’t get off Snapchat or Instagram (A 2017 survey of 5,000 teens found that 3 in 4 owned iPhones). Think of it as the gateway drug to our tech addiction.
2009 : Push notifications
Until this year, the only notifications we received were text messages and since those were limited to people we knew, it was manageable. When Apple allowed ANY app to send us push notifications, our attention got hijacked by countless apps, all eager to grab a slice of our attention and demand that we check out out a new picture (probably a selfie), video (of a silly cat, of course), tweet (from our President probably), news article, chat, invite to a game, a new podcast episode, an update from your credit card, etc. etc.
It practically allowed any App to define your To-Do list for today.
2009 : Likes
Facebook introduced the “Like” button this year, thereby giving tens of millions of users yet another reason to constantly check in with Facebook. Numerous studies have suggested that getting Facebook Likes produces dopamine, which activates the brain’s pleasure center — a process that scientists say is just like what happens to a drug addict’s brain after snorting cocaine. It’s a viciously addictive cycle: post an update on Facebook, get short bursts of dopamine with every Like notification, make another update, get more Likes and more dopamine hits, post another update… congratulations, you’re hooked.
2011 : Next Video Autoplay
Now you don’t even need to lift a finger to keep watching. Your next video will automatically start playing before you even have a chance to stop it. The term Binge-watching was contributed to Netflix after they did something very simple: start the next episode of the show you’re watching automatically after a few seconds. Go try to watch just one video on YouTube or one episode on Netflix. I dare you. It won’t happen.
2016 : VR/AR
We’re at a point where our physical realities and our digital realities are merging. Instead of technology distracting us from reality, it will simply be our reality. While Google Glass failed and Snapchat Spectacles haven’t really caught on, in the not-too-distant future, we will find a way to bring technology so seamlessly into our everyday lives that Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will seem like outdated terms. When this happens, can you even call it an addiction anymore if it’s just the way the world works?
Technology is constantly changing. But you can bet on one thing: Tech companies will keep introducing more and more features that have one driving motivation at their core: to keep you hooked. That’s because their very business models depend on you constantly visiting their websites, opening up their apps, posting updates, and consuming content. Remember, if the product is free to use, that means you are the “product.” The next time Apple or Instagram or Facebook unveil a shiny new feature, pay attention to how it’s playing on your addiction.
By Alon Shwartz,
CEO & Co-founder of unGlue and a father of three
unGlue is the world’s first collaborative technology that empowers people to manage their digital distraction and screen “addiction”.