In January 2010, Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple iPad to the world. "Right there, holding the internet in your hands, it's phenomenal," he said. "It's an incredible experience." A year later, however, he revealed to The New York Times his children had never used one. "We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, once said he implemented strict time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he told the Times in 2014. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
These are just two of the many technocrat technophobes named in Adam Alter's important new book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. In it, he argues that the truth that Jobs, Anderson and many other tech insiders knew then, and that we're only just beginning to scratch the surface of now, is that new technology addictions are controlling, distorting, and in some cases ruining our lives.
Are they really, though?
After finishing Irresistible last week, I downloaded one of the apps Alter mentions frequently throughout the book. Moment tracks all of your daily smartphone usage including how much time you've spent looking at your phone (it doesn’t count time on phone calls), how often you've picked up the device, and how much time you've spent within each app.
I spent, on average, almost one and half hours a day looking at my iPhone, picking it up an average of 17 times. That's almost 23 days a year looking at the screen of my phone. If, as the internet suggests, average life expectancy for somebody born in 1990, like me, is 71.7-years-old, that means I would spend almost another three whole years staring at it.
I also completed an internet addiction test, again referenced within the book. After answering questions such as, "How often do you lose sleep because of late night log-ins?" and "How often do you find yourself thinking, 'just a few more minutes?' when online?", the results suggested I have a low to moderate internet addiction. That implies that my relationship with the internet is causing me "occasional problems," which I'll explain shortly.
But what do you care? I'm just some random fella at the other end of a screen. True, but the scary thing is that my scores are below average, meaning there's a good chance your addiction is even worse than mine. When Moment shared the usage data of eight thousand users, they showed that the average usage time is just under three hours a day, with the average user picking up their phone 39 times in the same period. That's almost a whole day every week.
But so what if I spend a lot of time looking at my phone? I like looking at my phone.
Nobody likes to be told they spend too much time online or staring at their smartphone. It's what your parents tell you, and nobody likes being told what to or not to do by your parents. The accusation conjures up images of pale, sweaty guys hunched over blue-hued artificial light in dark, damp rooms. But just as not every drug addict is a toothless, piss-ridden burglar, not every internet addict has a phobia of the sun and human interaction.
The problem with spending too much time on your phone or other technology is that its negative effects aren't always immediately obvious.
Alder cites a 2013 study in which two psychologists invited pairs of strangers to sit down and have a short conversation about something interesting that had happened to them over the past month. Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat nearby, and for the others it was replaced by a notebook. The pairs who conversed with a smartphone nearby struggled to connect, describing the relationship formed as lower in quality and their partners less trustworthy and engaging. Even the mere presence of a phone is enough to disrupt our interactions with other people. That's because, say researchers, they remind us of the outside world, removing us from the immediate moment.
This social retardation is, however, just one of many dehumanizing side effects of our new technology addictions. In 2000, Microsoft Canada released a report stating that the attention span of the average human had declined to eight seconds — one second less than that of a goldfish.
In 2008, Dr. Jerald Block, writing in the respected American Journal of Psychiatry, wrote that technology addiction is now so common that it merits inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the profession's primary resource to categorize and diagnose mental illnesses. He said the disorder leads to anger and depression when the tech isn't available, as well as lying, social isolation and fatigue.
Later still, in 2014, a study found that people who are successful at work have a greater chance of developing a technology addiction, and are at increasing risk of anxiety, depression and isolation as they obsessively log in out of office hours.
If that's not enough to scare the shit out of you, wait, there's more to come. Alder explains that after thousands of years of evolution our brains are hardwired to recognize red light, like sunsets, as a signal to go to sleep. Blue light, on the other hand, reminds us of morning and makes us more alert. That's because our bodies naturally produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin when we're surrounded by red light, however, it stops producing it when we're surrounded by blue light.
So when you're laying in bed in the dark, bathed in that blue-tinted aura from your smartphone, you're telling your body it's time to wake up. A study released late last year showed that one in three American adults aren't getting enough sleep. The consequences? An increased risk of heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, poor weight control, higher pain threshold, slowed reaction times, mood swings, depression, obesity, and, yes, you guessed it — certain forms of cancer.
Why is this happening?
It's true that genetics play a role in the likelihood of developing an addiction, but the wider truth is that they're produced largely by environment and circumstance. Everyone one of us, whether we like it or not, is susceptible to them. Jobs and other tech company big shots realized this early on.
They knew the devices and experiences they were creating had the capability of doling out the same kind of dopamine hit as a tiny bump of cocaine, yet they still specifically engineered them to be that way. Why? Because the longer we spend on things like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, the more they can charge advertisers.
"Human behavior is driven in part by a succession of reflexive cost-benefit calculations that determine whether an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all," Alter explains. "When the benefits overwhelm the costs, it's hard not to perform the act over and over again, particularly when it strikes just the right neurological notes."
Receiving likes, comments and shares on social media all strike those notes. Then, when you combine that with a bottomless pit of content as news feeds churn out never-ending updates — you've got yourself a recipe for addiction. Almost all popular platforms and devices are specifically engineered to be like this. Apple and its ilk are the biggest drug dealers on the planet, and we all need rehab.
What can we do about it?
If you've managed to make it this far without hopping over to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or your email inbox, chances are you'd like to know how to avoid becoming a slave to your own personal belongings. Here are five quick tips to curb your usage.
1. Wise-up about how much time you're spending online
Only when I had my own smartphone usage right there in front of me (on my smartphone) did I really start to take the problem seriously. Download Moment right away, then set yourself manageable goals like only using your phone for one hour a day. The app even allows you to lock yourself out of your phone when you've reached a pre-specified limit.
2. Turn off all but the most necessary communications
Tech companies are making it harder and harder to turn off notifications, and you're probably getting more and more of them. Spend time to go through the notification settings of each app and disable almost all of them. Keep phone calls (obviously) and text messages, but email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, group chats and all similar features have to go.
3. Keep your phone outside of your bedroom
This one is a big one. Keep your phone away from your bedroom, and definitely don't charge it by the side of your bed. That blue-hued light is preventing your brain from releasing that sleep-inducing good stuff melatonin, and the temptation to pick your phone up when you can't sleep is just too great.
4. Stop getting your phone out in the company of others
Aside from being just plain fucking rude, you're significantly hindering your relationships with friends, colleagues, or that new person you're seeing every single time you whip out your phone. It's tough, but just don't do it unless it's really necessary.
Don't trust yourself to do any of the above? It's time to buy yourself a shiny new brick — read our guide here.
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked is published by Penguin Press and is available to purchase now for $16.
Now read why social media has created a generation of self-obsessed narcissists.