Does the following sound familiar? You’re about to go on a walk outside and you decide to check the weather app on your phone. You unlock your phone’s screen and all of a sudden you’ve been scrolling through Instagram for five minutes. WTF just happened? Unfortunately, your fingers have been trained to gravitate toward a highly addictive app and you may not have even realized it. In psychological terms, you’ve developed a behavioral addiction with your phone. On the Smart People Podcast, NYU professor and best selling author of “Irresistible”, Adam Atler, explains that while developing a behavioral addiction is rare in the absence of a drug, it can (and does) happen with our portable screens (and the social media applications they contain).
What’s a behavioral addiction exactly?
According to Atler, behavioral addiction is an experience you engage in repeatedly and compulsively because it feels good in the short term. The kicker is that this same behavior is also robbing you of wellbeing in the long run (I.e. it’s expensive, it’s unhealthy, or it’s stealing your joy).
“We just don’t know enough about exactly what screens are doing to people, especially as individuals…it’s just this general sense that…having so much of our social relationships, so much of our social lives mediated through a screen seems like it’s harming people in all sorts of ways that are hard to detect.”-Adam Atler, Heard on the Feel Better, Live More Podcast with host Rajan Chattterjee
Why do our screens and social apps become so addictive?
On the pod, Atler explained that this type of compulsive and repetitive tech use fills the deficit of some psychological need (I.e. loneliness or boredom). On the other hand, if you are preoccupied with other things (your career, your hobbies, your kids, training for a triathlon, etc.) and have all of your psychological needs met, you’ll spend a lot less time on the phone–since it’s not filling a gap for you. Unfortunately, in the modern world, Atler noted that most of us have some type of psychological deficit that the phone is essentially treating for us.
But filling a psychological need is only one part of the story, the addictiveness of our (so-called) social applications is not an accident. Social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Tiktok are deliberately designed to keep us hooked.
On a insightful episode of Feel Better, Live More, host Rajan Chattterjee talked with Atler, about what keeps us coming back for more:
“There are a number of sort of hooks that tech companies will use…and if you embed enough of the hooks into the product, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to catch the fish. We are the fish.”-Adam Atler, Heard on the Feel Better, Live More Podcast with host Rajan Chattterjee
On a recent episode of That’s So Retrograde, Lola Priego, who went from working for big tech, to battling the effects of our tech-driven lives, admitted that her entire job at Instagram was to make the app more addictive: “There I was, sitting at the Instagram office, working super hard just to make people scroll more through their feeds…”
What are the Social Media Design Features that Keep Us Hooked?
- Variable Reinforcement/Reward: I.e. giving people rewards that are unpredictable, similar to a lottery ticket. Atler noted that every time you share something online, you don’t know what kind of feedback you’re going to get and that element of a variable reward keeps us coming back for more: “If we got exactly what we wanted every time we posted something online, it would lose it’s appeal for us.”
- Social Obligation: While conducting research for his book, Atler found that people feel like they have to respond to their friends by liking, commenting, and re-graming other people’s posts.
- Embedded goals: I.e. more followers, likes, prizes or leveling up in a video game, etc.
- Lack of Stopping Cues: unlike older forms of media and technology, we no longer get to the end of the tv show, book, etc. where we know its time to end the activity and engage in something else. In other words, everything is bottomless: “the endlessness of a lot of experiences has sort of short-circuited our ability to say ‘Well, maybe it’s time for me to move on’.“
Would you implant your phone in your brain?
Despite what Elon Musk may think, most people would respond ‘no’ to this query. However, we tend to cling to our phones like they’re another limb. On the pod, Atler noted that carrying your phone around all day is similar to having it implanted in your brain:
“It’s the fifth lobe of your brain.” He followed that while the utility of phones generally make our lives easier, “if you keep outsourcing parts of your brain to phones, those parts of the brain wither, and you start to lose certain capacities that were part of the way humans operated for… thousands of years…”-Adam Atler, Heard on the Feel Better, Live More Podcast with host Rajan Chattterjee
What capacities are we outsourcing?
Aside from basic cognitive functions like math, we’re outsourcing our ability to function as social beings: things like emotional intelligence, the ability to work in teams, falling in love, and just generally existing in the world become more challenging as we outsource these functions to apps and screens.
What are the screens robbing us of (during the pandemic)?
During the pandemic, the opportunity cost of spending copious amounts of time on a screen are much lower (presuming you’re doing something of value on the screen). However, after the pandemic, the opportunity cost of being on a screen for several hours a day will likely shift in favor of being off screens.
Hopefully, we will yearn to bring serendipity back into our lives, and learn to tolerate the small moments of boredom that allow our brains to wander, chat with strangers, and come up with wonderful dreams and ideas.
Atler’s tip for building boundaries around tech use?
- Have structures or habits in place for putting the phone away during certain times of the day or not bringing it into certain spaces (I.e. the bedroom and dining room).
- Since it’s not natural for us to stare directly at each other during conversations, be sure to build breaks into zoom meetings (I.e. Take a 3 minute break every 20 minutes).
On Setting an Intention Behind Tech Use
Atler suggests asking yourself:
- What tech use brings you joy and enriches your lifes vs. what tech use is making you feel worse?
The antidote to tech addiction?
Spending time in nature.
Need some inspiration to get off your phone?
Check out our articles that will have you craving some time in nature (and off the screen):