When the World Wide Web was first ushered into existence by founder Tim Berners-Lee in 1991, he and many others envisioned it as the dawn of a new era. For the first time in human history, people would be more connected than ever, while information would be free from corporate and government powers and democratically accessible to all. More than 20 years later, the world and everyone we know within it can be found at our fingertips. Of course, technology is much bigger than the internet, but this development has arguably been the most influential in terms of the impact on society in recent decades. While there have been numerous positives, his vision for an egalitarian free-for-all hasn’t quite panned out the way he’d hoped. Here's how tech has been designed to become so addictive.
For many years, scientists were under the impression that humans could only develop an addiction for alcohol or drugs. This is understandable, as substance abuse is easy to identify: there are well-documented cases of people winding up sick, broke or dead.
However, recent research has revealed that other activities give people a hit of dopamine right in the pleasure centre that’s associated with addiction. Case in point: the ping of your phone when you get a notification lights up the same area of the brain as when you take cocaine.
Psychologist Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, says addictive technology behaviours are so entrenched in society, we barely notice it, and yet most surveys are unanimous: a vast chunk of the population is hooked on their devices.
A study from the University of Hong Kong in 2014 estimated that 420 million people around the world are addicted to the internet. In 2017, this number is likely to have shot up even more.
Alter says the difference with technology addiction is there hasn’t been much oversight into the way it has immersed itself so heavily into our daily lives, or the ramifications of this.
“We focus so much on its obvious upsides, which have profoundly disrupted our lives,” Alter says. “Many of its downsides have crept up. For example, email began as a low-level way of communicating from time to time, but now workers in many cultures feel tethered to email 24 hours a day. That didn’t happen overnight, which is one reason why people haven’t paid as much attention to it as a downside.”
And although substance addiction is far more likely to kill you, Alter says both substance and behavioural addictions share many of the same traits.
“They influence the brain in similar ways (though more strongly for substances) and they both treat psychological needs that aren’t met otherwise, including boredom, anxiety, loneliness and depression,” he says.
Perhaps the most telling sign of this is that the late Steve Jobs, who invented the iPad, didn’t actually allow his kids to use the device he had created.
“We limit how much technology our kids use in the home,” he told the New York Times.
Alter says this is akin to a drug dealer’s ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ mentality.
“[Jobs] recognised that children and teens struggle to interact with other people, to do their homework, and to generally avoid using screens when those screens are in front of them. The iPad, with all its captivating content, is especially difficult to resist."
Humans are naturally inclined to crave this hit of pleasure – be it from another person, an illicit substance or an object. But the more ominous side to technology is the fact that on the other side of these devices and apps, a human is handcrafting its features to be as addiction-inducing as possible.
On Netflix, the next episode is lined up to play automatically unless you tell it to stop. The level of difficulty to continue is less than zero, as it seems easier to keep binge watching an entire season of Orange is The New Black than to pull yourself out of the vortex.
On Snapchat, streaks appear depending on how many pictures two people have been sending back and forth to one another. If one person breaks the communication, the streak will end, encouraging addictive, frequent use of the app.
Alter says digital product designers intentionally build these rewards, such as likes, reposts, comments and shares, to be addictive. And in perhaps one of the most cleverly executed behavioural designs the world has seen, the trigger for this hit is not actually the technology itself, but other people. This means friends or followers are constantly prompting a person to continue using the service, and so the cycle continues.
“The possibility of these rewards is hard to resist in the same way that playing slot machines, with the promise of monetary rewards, is hard to resist,” he says. “They also create artificial goals — reach 1000 followers! Reach 100 likes! Conquer all 300 levels of this game! Which humans struggle to ignore once they exist.”
But it’s important to note technology isn’t all ominous, either. Just as alcohol can be enjoyed responsibly, so too can technology. And, when it comes down to it, Alter says it all depends on how it’s commoditised by companies and consumed by individuals.
Those feeling addicted or overwhelmed just need to actively monitor their behaviour and try cut down, he says. He recommends picking a certain time of day, like dinner time, to stop using devices with screens.
“In my experience, people enjoy this sacred period of time to such an extent that they extend that brief tech-free period to cover weekends and nights more generally.”