Screens, apps, and social media platforms are designed to be addictive -- but we have more power to counteract these forces than we think.
Over the past few years, there has been an increasing stream of ex-tech employees and executives warning the general public that companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google are focused on making certain platforms and devices as addictive as possible. The reason is that the more addictive a platform or device is, the more it creates profits related to advertising and even direct purchasing.
For a long time, there has been an adage related to negative outcomes with tech, which goes like this: “Technology isn’t the problem; it’s how we use it.” And while not all devices and platforms are created to be addictive and how we use each one is a significant issue, the reality is that tech companies spend billions of dollars every year, including working with psychologists and others social-emotional experts in the field, to create products that may be the most addictive commodity we’ve ever known.
3 Key processes that create the addiction
Tech companies are using addictive strategies that mimic mechanisms similar to painkillers — which is not promising given we are currently in the midst of an opioid epidemic.
As an example, tech companies routinely create what are called “painkiller apps” that focus on three key processes designed to manipulate our behavior in an addictive way.
First, a repeated trigger is used to direct our attention to something. This trigger might be a ding on the phone or a reminder that pops up on a particular app or platform.
Second, the trigger is linked to a core motivation(s) that we all have, such as fear of missing out (FOMO), or feeling pleasure. When our phone dings, we are motivated to respond instantly in seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain.
Third, an action follows that is both simple and enjoyable and/or reassuring. This might be clicking on a “Like” button or sending a quick text. In the tech developer world, as well as the addictive world, simple actions that bridge to larger, sustained behaviors are a sure-fire way to get someone hooked. It’s why many smokers would say that even before lighting up a cigarette, it is the small habits like opening and preparing a cigarette that are reinforcing.
This is why our devices and social media are particularly addictive. They are designed to be this way. Both use simple triggers that prey on core emotions, such as fear, loneliness, and the desire for immediate gratification. They are instantly accessible, often minimize vulnerabilities and undesired experiences (e.g., we don’t have to look at or talk directly with people), and reward those who use them the most — such as through increased Facebook friends or online ratings.
All the while, through the use of AI, tech developers are learning more and more about unique aspects of each of us, and what drives and motivates us further. With this information, personalized messages and advertisements are delivered to us continuously, further fueling our need for this particular type of drug.
All of it leads us to one critical, unavoidable truth:
It’s not just how we are using the tech itself that is the problem; it’s the tech itself.
To be clear, I’m not accusing all tech companies or platforms as being evil or unhealthy any more than I am accusing all alcohol or junk food as being maladaptive and indulgent.
Rather, what I am saying is that when a commodity like a mobile device or an app is created to primarily benefit the companies behind it at the expense of the user, we have to come to terms with the resulting situation. The reason greed is a vice is not because money is inherently evil; it’s because the way that money is being used is creating an inequitable situation.
This is where we are at today with our tech devices. But despite the difficult circumstances, the good news is that we as people (and parents!) have more power to counteract these forces than we think, taking into account a few considerations.
We need to educate ourselves
It is critical that we educate ourselves and our children to understand the mechanisms that are being used here, and create a healthy degree of caution when it comes to using these devices and platforms. No matter how good our intentions are, factors that prey on our core desires and subconscious selves need to be represented as the true threat that they are.
We need to set clear boundaries
It is important that we set clear boundaries on how we use tech, and not deviate from this. One example of an important boundary is not allowing youth (and really all of us) to have devices in their bedrooms, especially at night. Not only has this particular behavior been linked to a number of negative outcomes, but it also serves as a precursor to addiction as people are never provided the separation from their devices and platforms that are necessary for healthy usage.
We need to protect our youth
Studies have found that teens who start drinking by the age of 14 are over 7 times more likely to develop alcohol abuse/dependence than those who wait until they are 21. We need to heed this message when it comes to tech usage. Every year youth are not using social media or have access to personal devices decreases the likelihood they will become less prone to addictive forces preying on their immature neurology.
The hope for all of us is that we take advantage of leaving platforms and devices in their place through the lifestyle we cultivate. Whether it is an automatic message on our phones indicating to all that we are responding in a limited nature to texts, or whether we make Saturdays “social media free days,” we can develop habits and practices that help keep the addictive risk at a minimum, while remaining vigilant about the evil forces at play.