We've all heard a lot about tech addiction, dopamine and how our devices are out to get us. So, what does the science say and what can we do about it?
Tech addiction and it’s effects on our mental and physical health is a topic that gets hotter by the day. We constantly hear rumblings about giant corporations using state-of-the-art technology combined with the dark arts of psychology to steal our attention and turn children into mindless consumers. Research tells us that our attention spans are getting shorter, we struggle to focus on just one task at a time and have long forgotten how to tolerate boredom. A lot of us even self-identify as addicts and actively try to cut down our screen-time. Yet, so few of us make a concerted effort to actually understand the problem and how we can get ourselves out of this malaise. What exactly are these psychological tricks and biological queues that we’re falling prey to? Can we use similar methods to “trick” ourselves into creating desirable habits rather than harmful ones? It’s undoubtedly true that knowledge is power, so let’s explore what we know about tech addiction in 2021.
Brain chemistry, psychology and persuasive design
There are a wide variety of neurotransmitters and processes that have been identified as playing a role in addiction. They include endorphins, norepinephrine, hormones, peptides, glutamate, GABA, serotonin and, of course, the now infamous chemical dopamine. All occur naturally in our bodies and play a role in everything from our emotions to our basic bodily functions. At it’s root, addiction is a dependence or obsessive craving for change in one or more of the levels of these brain chemicals
or the functioning of processes that regulate them. Chasing these changes requires us to repeat the behaviors that bring them about. Once we have reinforced a new behavior sufficiently, it becomes a habit that is literally hard-wired into our brain, another key step on the road to addiction.
Until relatively recently, most studies about addiction were based around substance abuse. Today, however, we understand that things like food, gambling, games, social media and even good old fashioned work all elicit the kinds of chemical responses that can cause unhealthy habits to form. In some cases this is just coincidental, the results of biological and social evolution. For example, we are biologically programmed to binge on sugar, fat and salt whenever we encounter them as the natural sources of these compounds are generally healthy and relatively rare, meaning our ancestors would have done well to take full advantage when they encountered them. Accordingly, we have built nearly our entire food production systems around them.
Yet, as we all know, there comes a point where things transition from innocent to somewhat sinister. We may have co-created a world full of things that we are naturally predisposed to seek out, but some people also worked out a long time ago that it was possible to earn A LOT of money by exploiting these same inbuilt desires and urges.
Persuasive design and exploiting biology
Many processed foods are developed by scientists and psychologists who are literally paid to exploit our vulnerabilities, while casinos are designed from top-to-bottom to keep us spending until our last penny. The tech industry simply adopted many of the techniques learned in these and other industries to make their products equally addictive and then added a few more silicon valley specials of their own. They call it persuasive design, mostly because that sounds a lot better than calling it what it is: psychological and physiological manipulation.
To be clear, persuasive design principles are used harmlessly all the time, mostly for the purpose of designing genuinely better user experiences. Nobody is suggesting that it should be outlawed, but without doubt we should be having more conversations about where the line between harm and good actually is and trying harder to ensure that it isn’t crossed.
It’s common to hear or read something along the lines of “persuasive design can’t get people to buy or do things they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in” and this is certainly true. It’s also a convenient way of sidestepping the real issue.
How we’re being persuaded to buy and do things and the excesses and addictions this can create are what truly matters in this discussion. The truth is that the margins between what’s ethical and what’s not are fine and somewhat fuzzy. Many companies tread them with the best of intentions, while others seem to ignore them entirely in the hope that by the time we figure out what’s going on they will be “too big to fail”.
It’s already true that no single country can regulate the digital giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. While there are signs that this is changing, for now, they more or less act with impunity. Almost every major tech company has now had whistleblowers come forward about what they considered clearly unethical behavior that has lead to everything from widespread tech addiction to gross loss of privacy and the unjust persecution of individuals and groups in countries throughout the world.
What we can do about it
It’s no accident that the main point of comparison used earlier in this article for big tech was the food industry. Comparing tech addiction to getting hooked on drugs or gambling is naive at best and disingenuous at worst. While there are certainly safe levels of gambling and drug use, neither is vital for us in our everyday lives in the way that technology and food are. You might say that food is more fundamental than technology but even that is questionable. Sure, you can unplug, go and live in the mountains and survive by foraging, but if you want to participate in the modern world it’s almost impossible not to own a smartphone and even your food often requires some help from technology during it’s journey to your plate.
If we’ve accepted that technology is an unavoidable part of our lives (which I assume we have as you’re still reading and not off buying a fungi identification book), then we need to manage our relationship with it much the way we attempt to do with our food. In some ways, tech addiction is even harder to avoid than unhealthy eating habits. For example, when you’re eating a bag of potato chips and you reach the bottom, that’s called a stopping queue. At that point, if you want more chips you need to make the conscious decision to go and open a new bag. Compare that with the infinite scroll function on most social media platforms and you start to get an idea of the persuasive power of technology. Luckily, there are some simple ways that you can regulate your relationship with technology that will help you to avoid falling into the trap of addiction.
- Turn off push notifications – Stopping the constant flow of those seemingly innocuous little slices of info that have you checking your phone every time someone you went to high school with posts an update or a photo is a good place to start if you want to stop checking your phone every few minutes.
- Don’t sleep with your devices next to the bed – Checking notifications when you get up to use the bathroom or reaching for your phone first thing when you wake up in the morning are a shortcut to dependence.
- Take your digital privacy seriously – The more information you give away, the easier you are to profile, target and manipulate. Consider limiting the access of apps to your location services and personal info unless it’s absolutely necessary, delete cookies from websites you don’t want following your online activity or even consider using a VPN.
- Use a productivity app – Why take on the challenge of beating tech addiction with one hand tied behind your back? Using a tool like FocusMe is the most effective way to regulate your digital habits and force yourself to be more productive.
You can start by learning more about how it works and checking out some reliable third party reviews, or simply get started right away by clicking the button below (don’t worry, we’ll still explain everything)!