Your phone buzzes. A message, an Instagram post, a tweet — some bit of digital effluvia has come in, and it’s right there, promising a brief but necessary hit of connection. All you have to do is look.
But, just as an experiment, how long can you resist looking? A minute? Two? If you make it that long, how do you start to feel? Can you concentrate? Does your mind wander at what you’re missing? And if you give in — as you surely will, as you probably do many times a day — how do you feel about yourself?
The issue of “tech addiction” has been a staple of tabloidy panics for as long as anyone can remember. Yet this ancient worry has now taken on a new and more righteous flavor.
What is interesting is who has been pushing the issue. Several former Facebook executives, the very people who set up the Like-based systems of digital addiction and manipulation that now rule much of online life, have begun to speak out in alarm about our slavishness to digital devices.
And their worries seem resonant. Now that we all have phones, and we’re all looking at them all the time, how can we deny that they hold some otherworldly, possibly unhealthy bondage over our brains?
“It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, told Axios in an interview in November. He described Facebook and other social apps in terms once reserved for cigarettes — as products specifically engineered to exploit addiction pathways in human psychology. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Others have echoed his sentiment.
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” Chamath Palihapitiya, who once led Facebook’s efforts at global growth and is now a venture capitalist, told an audience at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in December. The Guardian, meanwhile, found a handful of former Facebookers who said they would quit using social media for fear of being programmed by the social giant.
Even Wall Street has weighed in, with two large investors asking Apple in January to study the health effects of its products and to make it easier for parents to limit their children’s use of iPhones and iPads.
Whether these Cassandras are correct is still a matter of scientific inquiry, though several studies suggest our phones do exert an addictive pull.
A study published in June by researchers at the University of Texas asked subjects to take a series of tests that required full cognitive attention. The researchers found that people who had their smartphones nearby — even though they were on silent — performed significantly worse than those whose phones were in another room. In other words, if your phone is nearby, you can never really stop thinking about it.
The bigger problem is what to do about any of this. Few laws or regulations prevent apps from keeping us hooked, and the tech industry has no serious ethical prohibitions against tinkering with software to drive engagement; indeed, at many tech companies, keeping people glued to the screen is the whole ballgame.
Sure, it’s nice that the guys who created this machine are suddenly aware of its dangers. But other than stop our phones entirely — or pursuing some self-directed regimen of conscientious withdrawal, good luck with that! — we might truly be hosed.