We Used to Be Humans: Practical Strategies to Combat Tech Addiction

The pace of technology has outstripped our capacity to attenuate its negative effects on our lives.

Our society is increasingly driven by a group of omnipresent manipulators who seek to create addiction in order to increase profits. These include the pharmaceutical industry and the Food Giants I discussed last week. Today, we will focus on the predatory practices of the technology industry.

Our society is increasingly driven by a group of omnipresent manipulators who seek to create addiction in order to increase profits. These include the pharmaceutical industry and the Food Giants I discussed last week. Today, we will focus on the predatory practices of the technology industry.

To call them predatory is not hyperbole; their expressed intent is tech addiction. The attention economy is predicated upon us scanning longer and clicking more. This is a big business. The exploitation of our evolutionary biology has been as masterful as it has been uncontested. Critiques come only from a fringe element; the opinion of “health freaks” and those “against progress,” who only want to spoil everyone’s fun.

To combat the effects of addictive technology, we must first admit the dangerous, unethical nature of the manipulator’s work, and begin to educate our communities against it.

The Incessant Hum of Technology

Life has changed dramatically in the past couple decades. We’ve all felt the ever-present draw to our devices—the impulse upon waking to “catch up,” the ease with which they allow us to attain information, and our inability to be undistracted anywhere or with anyone. The steady hum of anxiety that characterizes life in the 21st century emanates from the blue flicker of our four-inch screens.

This perpetual background noise saps our attention from objectively more important things, like studying, strengthening relationships, or driving a car.

Even our best and brightest need help. Picture a brilliant chemist doing essential cancer research. She’s holding and synthesizing many seemingly unrelated concepts and on the verge of making a connection that will drive a wave of breakthroughs. But POOF! A notification pops up on her laptop: she has been tagged in a photo. She can’t help it; she must see what picture this is, which brings her to the entire album, which is when she notices her best friend’s dog died and that it’s her aunt’s birthday.

How has technology become so addictive? It isn’t even a substance we ingest. Is this really some intentional plot to capture our minds?

The Attention Economy

Clickbait is big business. Internet ad revenue totaled $72.5 billion in 2016, and ads make more money where people spend more time. The more a site can get you to scroll, click, or stare at a page, the more money involved.

I must concede that I am, in a way, a part of this world. I have a deep desire for you to read all my articles, visit my website, and spend attention on my work. The more successful I am at this, the more benefits I’ll eventually receive. But my purpose is not solely to addict you to anything. Like journalists and writers of the past, I’m just happy if you appreciate my message.

In contrast to a journalistic approach, technology designers have invested heavily in understanding neuroscience to create addiction. It is not a side effect of their work, but the explicit intent. They look at everything from tracking streaks to color choices. Ever notice that multiple-page articles have gone away? That’s because web developers have discovered our propensity to stay on a site longer if we can scroll down endlessly, rather than having to click on the next page.

Have you ever gone to YouTube to get something you needed, and then spent two hours watching videos of dogs chasing their tails? YouTube auto-plays the next “recommended” video, and their algorithms use every ounce of information they can gather to deliver what you’ll find hardest to resist. Every web media company is busy collecting information on each of us to draw us in more effectively.

The Ways Your Tech Runs You

Former Google web designer Tristan Harris has been vocal in exposing this secret mission of the technology industry:

“There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention… The best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works… Technology is not neutral.”

Harris was taught the tricks of this trade at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. According to him, these tricks include:

  • Intermittent, variable rewards: When users are linked with a varying reward for actions, they keep coming back. This is the phenomenon behind slot machines, which make more money than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined. We now have a slot machine in our pockets at all times, which probably accounts for why we check our phone over 150 times a day, on average.
  • Fear of missing something important: This is why you have to bring your cell phone everywhere, why you keep swiping forever on dating sites and have to check the “neighborhood” app every day. What if something huge happens?
  • Social approval and reciprocation: Tapping into our evolutionary need for social acceptance that once kept us alive, we’ll spend an entire day seeking positive affirmations from people we don’t really know. Whenever someone does something for us, we subconsciously feel we owe them. “Thanks for the follow, I’d better return the favor.” So of course, every social media company now suggests new people you should follow.
  • Bottomless bowls and auto-play: Perhaps the most effective thing technology companies do to keep you scrolling and watching longer is keep the flow of juicy morsels uninterrupted, with precious little input from you, the user.
  • Instant interruption versus respectful delivery: Is there a reason you have to check that Facebook message, email, or text the second it comes through? A framework that respected our minds might not have beeps and prods constantly pulling our attention away and habituating distraction. If something is that time-sensitive, it would require a call. Wouldn’t that drastically change what you perceived as urgent or worth interrupting someone for?

At the root of most these addictions is the manipulation of dopamine: a powerful neurotransmitter that causes you to seek out more of what gave you your last hit. It is the itch you must scratch. Technology offers a constant drip of dopamine, rewarding us as we become habituated to its constant presence. Our biology is magnetically pulled to these texts, videos, likes, games, and the never-ending bounty of instant gratification that is offered by the slot machine in the palm of your hand.

The Hard Cost of Smart Software

“So what’s the big deal?” I hear you ask. “Could it be that culture is just changing, and this Shane dude is a big party-pooper? We like this stuff!”

The trouble is the effect technology is having on our ability to handle the real world. It has exponentially increased our ability for self-deception and our inclination to prioritize immediate pleasures over long-term goals and happiness.

The ability to delay gratification, also known as willpower, is a muscle that grows from practice. This is significant because delayed gratification is the greatest predictor of success in work, relationships, and life. Our smartphone-addicted population, particularly our youth, is quickly losing the capacity for the very element we know is most crucial to fulfillment.

These costs are tremendous and the evidence is overwhelming. In 2012, smartphone ownership crossed the 50% threshold. By 2015, 73% of teens had smartphones. In direct correlation, between 2010 and 2015, the number of teens who claimed to “feel useless and joyless” rose 33% in national surveys. Teen suicide attempts jumped 23%, and actual suicides jumped 31%. One in five high-schoolers today have or have had a mental health issue, with anxiety disorders exploding across all demographics in our society.

We’ve come up with new slang terms, like FOMO (the fear of missing out) and nomophobia (fear of being away from mobile phones for a long time), to describe our digital angst. There are even effects to our cognitive ability. We’ve seen ADHD diagnoses go up 43% since 2003, which should come as no surprise when we look at the constant distraction characteristic of tech culture. A study out of Korea indicated that teens addicted to smartphones had a higher prevalence of a neurotransmitter called GABA that results in worse attention and control. We’ve seen a generation of students who never experience deep work because they are unable to attain the depth of focus where real learning, synthesis, and growth happens.

The Generation of Digital Natives

This newest generation has been called iGen—a title befitting the saturation in digital culture that has characterized their upbringings. For these “digital natives,” it will only get worse until we accept that we are indoctrinating a society of humans with patterns and addictions that make them less. We must give them a framework to be more.

It is not uncommon to walk into a restaurant and see an entire family waiting for their meal while scanning their devices. Car rides are now quiet, as the children are occupied with games and videos in the back. The bus stop is full of kids quietly looking down. No time is sacred. We have to check our work emails at Junior’s Saturday morning soccer game and respond to an email from Stacy’s teacher during your work meeting. Most people feel as if they must always be checking their phone to make sure no one needs anything in this very moment. We can’t even work out without these digital leashes. “What if someone needs me?”

I’ve watched an entire varsity football team on the sideline “supporting” the JV, while every single one of their eyes were fixed on their phone. Each day, I watch as swaths of students are dropped off by parents without so much as a wave, and then trudge across the street, unaware of traffic as they anxiously scan social media.

The Loss of Anticipation and Experience

Technology is always with us, always poking its head where it doesn’t seem necessary. How hard is it even right now to keep reading? Have you felt a tug to just skim this article so you can consider it “read,” and then move on to digesting more?

What is lost is more than just time, attention, and cognitive ability. It is our very capacity to enjoy the subtle, beautiful nuance in each moment. We always feel we need something more, which fuels our consumerism, our debt, and our inability to follow through on goals and projects. As a society, we are losing the capacity to appreciate the build-up, the process, the growth that is the core of all success and fulfillment. We are, in effect, always trying to skip to the climax. Then we become confused as to why it’s not as good as we remembered or anticipated.

A great example of this can be seen in how we digest music. We aren’t listening, so much as wondering what song to play next. We’ll skip to get to that awesome loud part of “In the Air Tonight,” or “Stairway to Heaven.” But it’s not the same; it’s lost something essential.

Anticipation is part of the enjoyment. The juice is sweeter when we do the squeezing. This is because simple outcomes don’t bring happiness—mindfully driving towards a purpose while fully engaged in the process is where peak experience lies.

For most, these tools have made their lives less fulfilled, not more. Rather than working in concert with our nature to scaffold humanity to greater heights, the smart device has inhibited our growth. We’ve lost creativity, as our minds never have space. We’ve lost the ability to add numbers, to navigate, to strike up conversations with strangers, and to engage in the depth of conversation on a daily basis. We do not share company, so much as we populate the same rooms. Experiences are always clouded with the need to document, post, and curate our social highlight reels.

A New Framework for Your Digital Life

Technology has become so powerful and ubiquitous so quickly that we never learned how to safely incorporate it into our lives. Distraction and tech manipulation are virtually impossible to mitigate without a framework that teaches us how to access its benefits without being sucked in.

Rather than playing to society’s perception that all technology is progress, our schools should be the experts instilling responsible tech habits. They should be on the cutting edge of the manipulator’s methods and how to circumvent them. They should lead our communities with parent and youth education aimed at utilizing the power of these tools to make us more.

Here are a few quick suggestions that you can apply today:

  • Create and enforce no-phone zones. Make certain places sacred spaces of quality time, immune to digital distraction. Embrace awkward silences. They often are followed by the most precious moments.
  • Create rules for email, text, and social media. Batching these to two times a day allows you to handle a lot at one time while freeing your mind and harnessing mental energy in the rest of your day.
  • Put the phone away an hour before bed. Either set the alarm and put it across the room or just get a clock with an alarm. Yes, they still make those.
  • Create a rule that you cannot check your phone in the first hour of the day. I suggest filling this time with movement.

We cannot continue to strip our lives of the experiences that build willpower. We cannot continue to erode our ability for deep work. In a world with weapons capable of ending all life, with mass shootings going up every year, with global climate change, a nation in massive debt and epidemic health disorders, maybe it is essential that we relearn depth of thought, logic and logical fallacies, and the skills for dialogue and compromise. Maybe it’s time we decided to disconnect and choose to not be manipulated.