Q: Why are so many of us addicted to our smart phones (with their emails, social media and games)?
A: Smartphones are the perfect delivery devices for apps and platforms that are embedded with a range of hooks that are designed to capture our attention. Those apps draw from a menu of psychological techniques that are known to motivate and engage humans (and often other animals, too). For example, we’re driven to close open loops, including goals that are half-complete and half-told stories; we seek positive reinforcement, particularly when it’s not guaranteed and there’s a chance, however slim, of hitting a sort of rewarding jackpot; and we tend to continue doing what we’re doing until some external or internal cue nudges us to move on to the next behaviour. Tech companies systematically eradicate the cues that nudge us along, just as casinos ensure you can’t see daylight, there are no clocks, and all cues that time is passing are removed.
Q: Has technology addiction become the new smoking addiction?
A: In a quantitative sense, yes. Teen smoking has fallen alongside a commensurate rise in screen engagement, which suggests, tentatively, that they serve similar functions. They’re both forms of distraction during times of anxiety or boredom, and they both soothe people psychologically using similar reward mechanisms. There are, of course, differences, but there are reasons to consider them to some extent interchangeable.
Q: Is it us or the devices that make them so addictive?
A: It’s the devices. The people who design them are very clear about what they’re doing. They work with people like me—experts in human behaviour—to craft apps that are maximally addictive. This isn’t an accident; it’s addiction by design. Of course we have some degree of autonomy, but if you put an enticing product in front of someone who exists in a culture that uses that product for basic communication in the workplace, when traveling, socially, and so on, it’s very difficult for that person to stop using that product.
Q: How can this obsession with smart phones and tablets be used for a greater good?
A: The same cues that drive us to engage can be used for good outcomes: to encourage long-term retirement planning; healthy eating; exercising; social connection; engagement in the classroom; and so on. These hooks that I’ve referred to are morally agnostic; they don’t have to be used for the bad, but that’s usually where they bring financial rewards. Companies and entrepreneurs who are motivated to do good have used the same tools for morally good outcomes, too.