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Technology Addiction: ‘Likes’ Are the New ‘It’ Drug

Technology Addiction:  ‘Likes’ Are the New ‘It’ Drug

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

image of hand handcuffed to smart phoneIn the world of technology, the customers are the advertisers and the product is our attention.  Tech giants like google, apple, twitter, and facebook sell advertisers access to our eyeballs.  In an age of unparalleled information abundance, our attention is increasingly scarce.  The scarcity of attention is bringing competition for it to a fever pitch.  The increasingly sensationalized tactics tech companies use to get a piece of our attention work.  Ninety-two percent of people aged 18-29 have a smartphone.  The average person touches, clicks, or swipes their phone 2,617 times every day.  ‘Likes’ are the new ‘it’ drug, and the addiction to technology is spreading like wildfire.

Technology Addiction and the role of Variable Ratio Reinforcement

But are these tech companies really the world’s new drug dealer?  Yes, they are, and they’re far more sophisticated than your neighborhood pusher.  If people asked their local dealer about a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, he’d probably start talking about how sometimes he needs reinforcements to get people to pay up.  If someone’s drug dealer did understand the variable ratio of reinforcement, the dealer would intentionally be out of supply sometimes when customers called.  But instead, being out of supply just happens and the dealer accidentally benefits from the most powerful habit-forming pattern of reinforcement.

Apple, facebook, twitter and google, however, know quite well that habits conditioned on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement are the most difficult to break.  A man doesn’t get a text message from the woman he’s been pining over every time he checks his phone.  We don’t receive a flood of likes on every facebook post.  Our rewards are not predictable but we know we’ll get one eventually if we just… keep… posting, and checking, and snapchatting, and checking.  We keep pulling the lever on the slot machine that is our home button hoping for a jackpot.  Facebook intentionally holds back ‘likes’ to keep us coming back for more of that ‘fire.’

The sophisticated implementation of operant conditioning’s most powerful behavior shaper, the variable ratio schedule, is an intentional design fueled by the hyper-competitiveness of the attention economy.  The products of silicon valley are carefully constructed to trigger the urge to use their technology.  The more frequently we check-in, the more time we spend logged on, the more advertising is sold, the more our bay area dealers profit.  But is our increasing use of technology really anything like traditional addiction?

Yes, the emerging research on technology use is yielding results that sound almost identical to research into substance use.  Receiving ‘likes’ increases activation in the dorsal and ventral striatum, along with the ventral tegmental area of the brain – also known as the reward circuitry.  The reward circuitry is heavily implemented in addiction research.  Heavy smartphone use also decreases the capacity to delay gratification for future reward, or in other words, it erodes our willpower.

Satisfying the Need to Belong

Eventually, big tobacco acknowledged that they are in the nicotine delivery business.  Tech companies are not keen on acknowledging that they are in the self-worth delivery business.  There is a reason that smartphones are referred to by some as ‘adult pacifiers.’  We get some likes, dopamine surges, our insecurities are temporally anesthetized, and we have a fleeting moment of feeling okay, good-enough, accepted – like we belong.  Belonging is one of the foundations of human well-being.

When we feel that we belong we feel valued.  When we feel valued we feel self-worth – that our existence matters.  Tech companies capitalize on universal human needs and insecurities.  If the opposite of addiction is connection, then selling a manufactured version of human connection is the perfect drug.  The perfect drug is doing exactly what it is designed to do – create dependency.  We are literally scared to be without our phones, so much so that a fancy term of clinical jargon arose to describe our fear of being without our device – nomophobia (no-mobile phone-phobia).  But it’s okay, technology doesn’t have an agenda, it is a neutral tool at our disposal to make our lives easier, right?  Wrong.

It is a myth that technology is neutral.  Billions of minds are plugged into an environment managed by only a handful of tech companies.  In order to keep our attention here and not there, the competition drives click-bate further and further down our brain stems.  The stories we read are increasingly short, simple, and in confirmation with what we already believe because we are more likely to click away if the content presented to us is complex and challenging to our beliefs and perceptions about ‘reality.’  Reality has been defined as “the myths we have not yet seen through,” and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the image of technology as a neutral and inert tool that awaits our direction is a myth of epic proportions.

Our technology knows us.  Our technology knows that we don’t have time to be challenged, to question, ponder, and reflect.  We want to confirm what we already think we know and move on to some real news about Kim Kardashian firing her hairdresser.  Research into smartphone and social media use are correlated with increased impulsivity, less analytic thinking, poor academic performance, decreased working memory capacity, increased anxiety, and decreased novel problem solving ability.  Our brains are already wired for shortcuts, and technology exploits and reinforces our tendency towards oversimplification resulting in a careening cascade away from the glorious wonder of befuddlement and down into the sinking darkness of the unexamined life that Socrates declared was not worth living.

It appears modern culture has a noble choice of its own.  We stand at a precipice.  Do we choose the sustainable happiness that comes from the discipline and sacrifice necessary for production?  Or do we choose to dump our attention into the grinding wheel of the techno slots to hear the etherizing bells that distract us from the splendid terror of the inner world and our call to find meaning in the mystery of existence?

The new ‘it’ drug is in our pockets right now, calling out for us to check our phones, get more likes, google ourselves, feel good about ourselves, repeat.  The more time spent consuming information from a screen the less time spent living our dreams.  Technology narrows our spectrum of consciousness more than it expands it.  New experiences and different ideas come from walking with our eyes up, not staring down into the dull, pixelated, LCD glow of the latest phablet gadget.  Our attention is gold and we give it away to the snake oil salesmen of today.  Nobody heals their deepest wounds, cultivates lasting self-worth and a genuine sense of belonging, or finds meaning in life by dumping their energy into cold interactions with a lifeless machine.

Tips for Breaking the Chain to our Devices

  1. Use ‘do not disturb’ and ‘airplane mode.’ When sleeping, eating, watching a movie, or spending time conversing with a real human live in the flesh, we can benefit from using the do not disturb and airplane mode options to ensure we are not distracted by the alluring buzz and ding that has us conditioned like ‘Pavlov’s bell.’
  2. Turn off Push Notifications: Do we really need an immediate alert that someone clicked ‘like’ on a photo of our kung-pao chicken?
  3. Leave the device at home: When we go out to eat, on a date, or go to the movie theater, leave the phablet behind.  The first iphone will be 10-years-old on June 29, somehow we all managed to survive until 2007 without a computer in our pocket, I think we can still get through an evening (or even a day!) without it.