A Subconscious Addiction: Why We Can’t Put Our Phones Down

It happens every day. You reach into your pocket, pull out your phone, unlock it, and then find yourself scrolling through social media wondering why you opened it in the first place. Or you start to check the time, then end up scanning texts and news headlines with no idea whether it’s 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m., or whether you even looked at the clock at all.

Photo by Emily Klockenbrink

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. We all know our generation is addicted to technology; we’ve heard it hundreds of times. In fact, we hear it so often it begins to feel like beating a dead horse, except the horse is very much alive and is actively manipulating our minds, and there’s nothing we can do except let ourselves be controlled by a human invention until we slowly devolve into robots. Or at least, that’s what it feels like to me.

What we lack is a real understanding of how technology becomes addictive, and how we can use technology in a responsible yet realistic way. Some general ideas might seem clear: using Microsoft Word to write a paper is productive, online shopping during class is not. But what about the areas in between? For example, studies have shown taking notes by hand is more effective than taking notes on a computer. If I use my computer to take notes during class, am I addicted? What if a professor requires you to bring a computer to class? What if I’m using my phone to read news headlines? What if I’m Facebook messaging a friend who lives hundreds of miles away? The answers to these questions are necessarily subjective, so it is all too easy to rationalize overuse of technology even if it’s obvious technology overuse is a problem. Most of the time, when I open my phone, I at least think I’m doing something productive.

Yet, research has shown we open our phones far more—as much as twice as often—than we think we do. This indicates that much of smartphone use is implicit behavior, or, to use the words of the study’s co-author, “habitual, automatic behavior that we have no awareness of.” 

Tristin Harris, founder of the Center of Humane Technology and Google higher-up gone rogue, believes that addiction is fundamentally the result of technology companies competing for users’ time and attention. When Facebook’s stock price depends on its obtaining a certain number of minutes of attention per day—and users have a finite number of minutes to spend on any given interface—it is incentivized toward addiction. When technology companies are incentivized toward addiction, they craft products intentionally designed to addict us. An example is the home screen of an iPhone; the bright colors in the display release dopamine in our brains, encouraging us to unlock it even if we’re not consciously aware of wanting to do so—hence, opening your phone and having no idea why you did it.

This argument is perhaps not as sexy as the one that teenagers are all self-conscious narcissists who need Instagram likes for self-validation, but it’s scarier. A self-conscious narcissist is not anything I strive to be, yet at least self-consciousness and narcissism are specific behaviors that we can identify as compounding or creating technology overuse. This model suggests technology overuse is generated by market forces in the tech sector along with neurological processes in our own brains. Worse, it means being a self-conscious narcissist is a result of, not a precursor to, addiction. It not only means that we’re letting ourselves be controlled by a human invention, but that there’s a Silicon Valley-funded mechanism of capitalism forcing the producers of said invention to speed the process of our slow descent into lethargy and antisocialism completely unfettered by the federal government—or something like that.

Put more optimistically, it means the technology industry could effectively be regulated in the same fashion as other industries that compete on the basis of addiction: the tobacco industry, the fast food industry, the gambling industry. Require that robot accounts on social media be labeled. Use the techniques of the anti-tobacco movement to generate public awareness. Alternatively, it means the technology sector could be incentivized or restructured so that companies no longer compete on the basis of addiction, of minutes spent onscreen.

A good analogy is the health insurance industry pre-Obamacare, where health insurance companies were incentivized toward excluding high-cost customers (i.e. those with pre-existing conditions). This is not to say Obamacare worked perfectly—nor did it solely address the exclusion of high-risk consumers—but to point out that we have, in the past, attempted to reorganize toxic markets with intentional policy. It also gives a warning: any attempt to regulate the technology sector will, like Obamacare, surely be met with opposition. And just as we think it is important that citizens be concerned about and involved in the structuring of their nations’ healthcare, we should think it is imperative that all who are affected by technological changes (i.e., everyone) to be involved in the dynamics of the tech industry.

There’s some good news, though: you’re not a self-conscious narcissist, you’re just slowly being manipulated into one.

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