I’m always going on about how great technology is and how our lives are being changed for the better. So I wanted to balance out that with an opinion piece (backed by research) which I will start with a simple question: How often do you check your phone in a day? Or rather, how often do you put your phone down in a day?
Do you ever feel as if your phone is ruining your life instead of improving it? Because it actually might be!
Terms like digital addiction were unheard of before the smartphone and social media era. The idea of being addicted to a gadget would even have been mildly amusing back then. It is, however, not very funny now seeing that it is an actual condition that is affecting people.
What is digital addiction?
Digital addiction is a behavioural addiction where a person becomes overly dependent on the internet and online devices as a way of coping with the stress of everyday life. Although it hasn’t been acknowledged as a mental disorder, it is a growing concern, especially in tech-advanced nations. The South Korean government has already declared it a national health problem.
According to a study by Deloitte, in the United States, people aged between 18 and 24 years check their phones 74 times a day on average. According to a poll by Common Sense Media, 50% of teens in the USA feel like they’re addicted to their phones. So prevalent is phone addiction that “smartphone thumb” and “text neck” are actual medical conditions. Let’s not even start on deteriorating attention spans. Is digital addiction the unintended consequence of technological progress, or a strategic plan to keep you consuming certain tech products?
Exposing the dark side of technology
The last two decades have seen remarkable technological advances which have shaped the way we live and interact today. It was the period when social media and smartphones became mainstream. Today, smartphones are so heavily integrated into our lives that we practically can’t do without them. They support all these social and gaming apps that allow us to take a break from real life. They make our lives a little relaxed and more fun. The problem, however, arises when we go to full-blown dependency mode on these gadgets.
Do you ever ask yourself why you find yourself checking your phone even when you shouldn’t? It’s not a coincidence. Mobile App developers model their Apps on a very specific science designed to keep you hooked. They use a formula termed as the Fogg Behaviour Model to keep you on the hamster wheel of liking, tapping, and sharing when using their Apps. This is the same formula used by the makers of poker machines, and we all know how that story ends!
The Fogg Behaviour Model works around the forces of motivation, trigger, and ability. Vanity is the motivation. You want to look good to your friends. And the trigger is the “push” notifications on your phone. Someone likes your picture on social media, your phone alerts you. Now that we are always online, you have the ability to check your notification, so you hop onto Facebook or Instagram to feel that rush from someone else’s validation. Before you know it, you could be on your way to digital addiction!
App developers are not the only ones to blame. Device makers are also fueling this kind of behaviour. Comparing past mobile phones to what we have today, you’ll notice a pattern. Screens are getting bigger and more interactive. We can argue that the large interactive displays provide a seamless user experience but is that the only thing they’re doing? Modern phones will have a section on the screen dedicated to showing notifications even when your phone is in sleep mode. It’s all an effort to keep you on that phone. Now smartwatches, touted as the next big thing in health and wellness (and yes, there are positive benefits in knowing how many steps you took today and how well you are sleeping), are also notification screens strapped to your wrists.
The tech industry’s take
Some will even claim that are at a point where we can say that digital addiction is becoming a global health crisis. We are more commonly hearing about friends who have “given up Facebook” or turn their phones off and place them in a drawer overnight. In fact, a tech revolt has started brewing and even the tech industry’s elite are speaking up on the issue. In 2018, Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker said that the network was getting users hooked by exploiting human psychology. He went on further to say, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Just like Parker, early Facebook and Google technologists have seen the detrimental effects of digital addiction and are already taking action. Led by Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, the technologists formed a coalition called Centre for Humane Technology in February 2018. The Centre’s mission is to create awareness of the dangers posed by the manipulative nature of modern tech tools. They have partnered with Common Sense Media to create a campaign targeting parents, students, and children to educate them about the dangers of digital addiction.
It’s movements like this that have encouraged device makers to include new features like Screen Time – which tells you just how much you are getting.
Are we heading for an imminent technological disaster?
I don’t think so. I think that by just being aware of the risks, we can take proactive steps to limit our obsession.
Technologists and awareness groups can only do so much. Breaking free from digital addiction requires concerted effort and will power on behalf of the individual. Perhaps it is time to rethink our relationships with our phones?
According to Tristan Harris, one way to break free of your cellphone is to make it as unappealing as possible. Basically, turn it from a time-consuming plaything into a mere utility tool. How do you do this? Harris did it by first deleting all social and play Apps on the phone, and turning off all notifications. He then changed the colour scheme to dark mode and rearranged his home screen to make it less colourful. A few small adjustments can help you stop checking your phone every three minutes.
The use of productivity apps like Flipd, App Detox, moment, Quality Time, and Space is other effective ways to combat digital addiction. These apps are designed to force the user to take a time-out from distracting apps and focus on a specific task. With customisable settings, you can set the time out you’ll take and the give the App permission to control this. Apple’s Screen Time shows users how much time they spend on their phones, although it makes you wonder, how much screen time is enough and how much real life are we missing out on?
When it’s all said and done, technology is here to stay, and its advancement will not be slowing down any time soon. The least we can do is learn to live with it without letting it control us, for the sake of ourselves and future generations.