Commentary

Addicted To Tech

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.”

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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

--     Harmful

--      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.

6 comments about "Addicted To Tech".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, September 5, 2017 at 12:45 p.m.

    Gord:  Good piece. Academic researchers do have much to offer...if only it could get to the marketplace sooner, (academic publication lag), sporting applied as well as theoretical import and with bigger sample sizes.

    I often become concerned with what tech enables, such as "confirmation bias."  We clearly see evidential tracks in social media, which often accelerates "closed-mindedness."   Going way back to Pavlov and others...we are wired to seek rewards...which as you noted triggers brain chemistry.  

    Thanks for the links too.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 5, 2017 at 1:48 p.m.

    Tobacco has been smoked for thousands of years. Cancer of all kinds has been discovered in mummies. Will we be around that long in the face of destruction at this level of anti social media ?

  3. Ellie C from FMM, September 5, 2017 at 2:26 p.m.

    so I'm coming from a mom and teacher perspective and not an advertising perspective....but this grand experiment is in the process of going very badly wrong!  And I don't care so much about the adults (as your brains are already formed by your life experiences), but more the young users of technology, social media and the like.  If we are not balancing our kids lives with real activities, real interactions, real work and real communication, they are screwed. They cannot be raised in this artificial, cyber world and not expect some big problems as they try to interact with the real world (it's like taking an animal out of the zoo and seeing if it can survive in the wild - it can't). I blame this not only on the big corporations,  but more on the parents and the school systems who are blindly buying this stuff and cramming it down the throats of young users. Hopefully parents will stop thinking their kids all need smartphones and active lives on social media and the pendulum will swing the other way. We shall see, but in the meantime, we must support families, teachers and organizations who understand the consequences and want (choose) to do it the "old school" way as those kids will know how to function and relate to others, as well as have other critical real life skills like drive, work ethic, reading skills and comprehension, common sense, et...  The tech is so easy to use and user-friendly that our kids really don't need this stuff until they are older, they can become proficient at any time. 

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 5, 2017 at 5:04 p.m.

    I'm with you, Ellie. The problem is that "we" are losing the battle as "technology" has conditioned many of the younger generation as well as some older adults that they don't have to study or be well versed in anything---all they need do is look "it" up electronically when a question arises. This "need to know" attitude makes us increasingly lazy and ill-informed, especially as regards the relevance of information--even if readily available---because we have no context for understanding what the significance may be. Unfortunately, I regard the battle as lost and as more and more "data" becomes available, we will become more and more ignorant, not smarter.

  5. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing, September 6, 2017 at 11:57 p.m.

    Addiction is a pretty good analogy, but at least the alcoholic gets some solace of achieving drunkenness. What does the Facebook addict get ? If you are forward enough, conduct your own research by peering over the shoulder of a smartphone Facebook user on the bus if subway. Watch him or her scroll and skim and scroll and skim, maybe - maybe - clicking into 1 of every 50 feed items. I'd love to see qualitative research that answers questions like "does this make you happy?" And "what are you learning?" And "can u think of a better way to spend your time?"

    develop a 12-step program for Facebook addicts and you'll be a zillionaire...

  6. Kahlil Crawford from Freelancer, February 28, 2018 at 3:03 p.m.

    Paranoia with a twist of truth..

    There is always hysteria around the emergence of revolutionary technologies (TV, Radio, etc.). Perhaps the pathology is in our human capacity to fear.

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