A few columns ago, I mentioned one of the aspects troubling me about technology: the shallowness of social media. I had mentioned at the time that there were other aspects that were equally troubling.
Here’s one: Technology is addictive, and it’s addictive by design.
Let’s begin by looking at the definition of addiction: Persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.
So let’s break it down. I don’t think you can quibble with the persistent, compulsive use part. When’s the last time you had your iPhone in your hand? We can simply swap out “substance” for “device” or “technology.”
So that leaves the last qualifier “known by the user to be harmful.” There’s two parts to this: Is it harmful, and does the user know it’s harmful?
First, let’s look at the neurobiology of addiction. What causes us to use something persistently and compulsively? Here, dopamine is the culprit. Our reward center uses dopamine and the pleasurable sensation it produces as a positive reinforcement to cause us to pursue activities which, over many hundreds of generations, have proven to be evolutionarily advantageous.
But Dr. Gary Small, from the UCLA Brain Research Institute, warns us that this time could be different: “The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive.”
We like to think of Big Tobacco as the most evil of all evil empires -- guilty of promoting addiction to a harmful substance -- but is there anything really separating tobacco from the purveyors of tech -- Facebook or Google, for instance?
According to Tristan Harris, there may be a very slippery slope between the two. I’ve written about Harris before. He’s the former Google product manager who launched Time Well Spent, a nonprofit, devoted to stopping “tech companies from hijacking our minds.”
Harris points the finger squarely at the big Internet platforms for creating something intentionally designed to suck as much of our time as possible.
There’s empirical evidence to back up Harris’ accusations. Researchers at Michigan State University and from two universities in the Netherlands found that even seeing the Facebook logo can trigger a conditioned response in a social media user that starts the dopamine cycle spinning. We start jonesing for a social media fix.
So what if our smartphones and social media platforms seduce us into using them compulsively? What’s the harm, as long as it’s not hurting us? That’s the second part of the addiction equation: Is whatever we’re using harmful? After all, it’s not like tobacco, which was proven to cause lung cancer.
Ah, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? We were smoking cigarettes for almost a hundred years before we finally found out they were bad for us. Sometimes it takes a while for the harmful effects of addiction to appear. The same could be true of our tech habit.
Tech addiction plays out at many different levels of cognition. This could potentially be much more sinister than just the simple waste of time that Tristan Harris is worried about. There’s mounting evidence that overuse of tech could dramatically alter our ability to socialize effectively with other humans. The debate, which I’ve talked about before, comes when we substitute screen-to-screen interaction for face-to-face.
The supporters say that this is simply another type of social bonding -- one that comes with additional benefits. The naysayers worry that we’re just not built to communicate through screens and that, sooner or later, there will be a price to be paid for our obsessive use of digital platforms.
Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, researches generational differences in behavior. It’s here where the full impact of the introduction of a disruptive environmental factor can be found. She found a seismic shift in behaviors between Millennials and the generation that followed them. It was a profound difference in how these generations viewed the world and where they spent their time. And it started in 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50%.
Twenge sums up her concern in unequivocal terms: “The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”
Not only are we less happy, we may be becoming less smart. As we rely more and more on technology, we do something called cognitive offloading. We rely on Google rather than our memories to retrieve facts. We trust our GPS more than our own wayfinding strategies to get us home. Cognitive offloading is a way to move beyond the limits of our own minds, but there may an unacceptable tradeoff here. Brains are like muscles: If we stop using them, they begin to atrophy.
Let’s go back to that original definition and the three qualifying criteria:
-- Persistent, compulsive use
-- We know it’s harmful
In the case of tech, let’s not wait a hundred years to put check marks after all of these factors.