Your Smartphone or Your Life...or, the Dangers of Addictive Technology

Rep. Jason Chaffetz's recent remarks suggesting that some Americans should invest in their health instead of in a new iPhone reminded me of nothing so much of the old Jack Benny bit, where Benny is accosted by a robber who threatens "your money or your life."  When Benny doesn't immediately respond, the robber prompts him, and the supposedly miserly Benny snaps back, "I'm thinking it over."

I suspect that, like Mr. Benny, many of us would have a tough choice between our smartphones (and our other devices) and our health.  It may be not so that we're miserly as it is that we're addicted.

To be fair, Rep. Chaffetz subsequently walked back -- to some degree -- his comments, after taking merciless criticism on social media.  However, his point is not entirely wrong: we do have to make choices, and make our spending and lifestyle choices carefully.  Based on our health habits, most of us are not making choices that optimize our health.  And you can blame our various devices at least in part for that.

We watch a billion hours of YouTube alone each day, every day.  We spent another billion hours a month playing mobile games alone, and that was for 2015.  In the U.S., we spend some 5 hours per day on our mobile devices, eclipsing time spent watching TV.

Lest you protest that this is all just harmless entertainment at worst and important connectivity at best, keep in mind that the CDC reports that (in 2013!) 1 person dies and another 1,161 are injured every day due to "distracted driving," which is most commonly attributed to use of mobile devices.

Social psychologist Adam Alder, in a new book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, asserts that our love of our devices is not just passion but addiction -- literally.  It's a behavioral addiction, but one with a biological basis in many cases, such as when the brain's reward mechanisms that are triggered by, say, online games or online shopping.

As Dr. Alder told The New York Times: "The people who create video games wouldn’t say they are looking to create addicts. They just want you to spend as much time as possible with their products."  The same applies to Facebook or Snapchat or Amazon; they want your eyeballs and they want to hold them for as long as possible, as many times a day as possible.

Indeed, Wall Street likes to measure them by how many users they have, how often those users engage, and for how long they stay engaged.  The tech companies tweak their offerings in the way that a candy bar maker might adjust the sugar content -- or a cigarette maker might change the nicotine levels.

Dr. Alder notes that our increasing use is not a matter of lack of will power, quoting Tristan Harris, "there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have."

This is an issue that Mr. Harris has been outspoken about for sometime.  He spent several years as a "design ethicist" at Google, and bills himself as a design thinker, philosopher, and entrepreneur.  He wrote a long, thoughtful post on Medium last year, detailing how technology "hijacks" our minds.

Mr. Harris compares what technology does to what magicians do: "They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose."  They do this in part, by controlling the menu, so that we rarely think about the choices we're not being offered.

He also compares our reliance on our devices to the allure of slot machines: every time we check it, there is a chance for us to "win," whether that is a new email, Facebook post, or other notification.  Our brains light up and crave another try.  For some of us, that is checking our email, for others, updating our Facebook status, and still others posting on Instagram or tweeting.

All in all, Mr. Harris details 10 "hijacks" that technology companies use to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities.  As he says, "Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano." And all this is before augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have become widespread.  Imagine how they will enhance our addiction.

Some are fighting back.  The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Sterns detailed efforts to "lock up your smartphones, such as at concerts, dinner parties, or schools.  Yondr, for example, makes pouches for smartphones to create phone-free spaces; their slogan is "Be Here Now."

Wired, of all publications, just published an interview with author Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, the thrust of which was that we only spend 5% of our time outdoors, and that's not nearly enough.  And, no, being outdoors in VR or simply being on your smartphone while outdoors don't count.

We've been talking a lot about the opioid epidemic in the U.S., which is, indeed, a very real, very serious health care crisis.  But people like Dr. Alder and Mr. Harris would assert that our addiction to technology may impact even more of us and pose an equally grave threat to our long-term health.

Mr. Harris has founded Time Well Spent, "a movement to align technology with our humanity."  We're not going to get rid of our smartphones or other technology that we've come to depend upon, but we can do better about making it serve our purposes, not vice versa.

And one of those purpose should be our health.

It's not that smartphones are a "luxury item" that should be forgone to make better health choices, as Rep. Chaffetz was trying to assert, as it is that we're not using our technology very effectively to improve our health.  Exercise more, eat better, pay more attention to our health, especially any existing conditions.  Those are the kinds of things we should all be doing -- and that technology can help us with.

Or we can let them dictate our behavior, going for more time, more clicks, more immersion.

What we end up actually doing will determine if we're using technology, or are simply addicted to it.

Your Smartphone or Your Life was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.