What Happens When Someone Who Helped Get Us Hooked on Technology Defects to the Other Side?

Gabe Zichermann of Onward


Gabe Zichermann isn’t your typical recovery advocate.

For one, his work isn’t around drug and alcohol addiction but behavioral addictions — namely technology, pornography, gambling and shopping.

For another, he is the world’s foremost expert on gamification. He’s written books called The Gamification Revolution, Gamification by Design and Game-Based Marketing and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the industry’s primary publication, Gamification.co. He’s created companies in the space and given Ted talks on the topic.

In short, he has spent a large part of his career getting us hooked.

Onward, a company he co-founded, is perhaps his penance.

How exactly did he make the switch?

“A few years ago, I had sort of a revelation of looking around and seeing that people were developing really unhealthy relationships with technology,” Zichermann says. And so he and his co-founder Adam Singer set out to do something about it.

The reason for Zichermann’s shift to the “enemy camp” has to do with what he observed about technology-based addictions — in particular, how they’re different from all other kinds of addictions. “Technology adapts to us and tries to make itself more addictive and more embedded in our world,” he says. “A bottle of booze can only be as strong as that bottle of booze, but if Facebook could program a bottle of booze, it would try to figure out when you are most susceptible to booze, and try to get you to drink by changing the flavor of it and the shape of the bottle, what’s in it and which kind of bottles it’s surfacing to you. That’s the power of algorithms.”

Zichermann knows of what he speaks. “I have this very clear memory of my college roommate throwing a big party,” he recalls. “I’m a pretty social person, but I spent that entire night playing a video game called Civilization for six to eight hours, while about 100 people swirled around me.”

One thing Zichermann knows for sure: he’s not the only one who’s been there. A stat he cites is that more than 50 percent of the population today believes that they use their devices more than they would like, and 50 percent of teenagers outwardly say that they are addicted to their phone.

Onward is designed to help people understand their technology overuse, set limits on it, and learn coping skills that will help them change their relationship to it. The company worked with clinical advisors at UCLA, Stanford and Columbia Medical Center to come up with a mechanism for helping people that is based in science, validated in research, and actually able to provide help to a large swath of the population.

Once you sign up for an Onward account, you’re provided with a reporting of how much technology you’re using and when. It then encourages users to set their own limits for themselves, much like in some 12-step programs, such as SLAA, where members create their own “bottom lines.”

During the times that the user sets, Onward actually blocks access to those sites and apps and then helps teach the user coping skills — including mindfulness, social connection and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It also provides an AI bot that’s available around the clock. The idea, Zichermann explains, is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to treating addiction. “I think the future of addiction recovery, certainly when it’s technology-driven,” he says, “is to not be a partisan for one kind of treatment modality, but rather to find the optimal treatment modality for the person.”

Onward is highly accessible — users can open accounts for free — and those who aren’t sure whether or not they qualify as a potential user can take a quiz on the app’s website home page to find out. The idea of creating something available to the masses was a key element for Zichermann. “For the behavioral addictions — gambling, shopping, video games, porn, sex, and food to some extent — there isn’t any insurance coverage whatsoever,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how messed up your life is from gambling. It doesn’t matter if you’re suicidal, you’ve ruined all your relationships, you’re unable to function, you can’t have a job. There’s no money from the government for that problem.”

“I hope,” he adds. “that we get our act together in this country around mental health, and particularly addiction. But in the meantime, I thought I would put my money where my mouth is, and my time into coming up with something that would help.”

To hear my podcast interview with Zichermann, click here. To see a video of it, click here.

NOTE: This episode is from a Facebook Live interview that we did, which means that the audio isn’t as sharp as it is on regular episodes. Please bear with that! And please tune into my regular Facebook Live interviews. Make sure you Like my page so stay up on the info!