Our societally accepted addiction: technology, social media and the need to break away

| Senior Editor

Hi, I’ve decided to become an alarmist. 

No, I’m not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill; I’ve just decided to acknowledge mountains where they exist. 

It’s becoming increasingly crazy to me that we’ve normalized feeling mildly concerned about how much time we’re spending on screens and social media — that we’ve let ourselves succumb to vices of which we can often only see the short-term drawbacks. Most people feel vaguely disgusted about spending five hours a day on their phones. But those aren’t the right reactions for these chronic and detrimental problems. We need to shake ourselves awake. We need to see the mountain.

At the time of writing this sentence, I’m almost done with the book that put me into this headspace: “Irresistible” by NYU Professor Adam Alter. His book is about behavioral addiction, and specifically the addiction to technology that is afflicting so many of us, to varying degrees. It dives into many of the issues that most of us know exist in regards to our technology consumption, but he brings statistics and gravity to the issues in a way that I was unwilling to recognize before. 

“The problem isn’t that people lack willpower,” Alter wrote. Rather, design ethicist Tristan Harris put it best: “There are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”

For instance, Alter cited research showing that “60% of respondents reported binge-watching dozens of television episodes in a row despite planning to stop much sooner.”

These sites have worked perfectly — for the people seeking to make money off of us. Netflix introduced the “post-play” feature to its streaming platform in 2012. That’s the feature that automatically loads and plays the next episode of the series for you. Ah, how wonderfully convenient. As Alter notes, “Before August 2012 you had to decide to watch the next episode; now you had to decide to not watch the next episode.” This “absence of barriers” between episodes has helped contribute to the amount of binge-watching Americans are doing. 

That’s an algorithm designed to entrap us. And it’s working. 

Weeks ago, after a friend mentioned she had just deleted her Instagram, I followed suit and finally decided to delete my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Like, really delete them — I terminated my accounts.

First, the app told me that before I could deactivate my account, I had to select from a list the main reason that I was doing so. 

(“What is: time suck, 500.”)

Then, I was told that instead of deleting my account, I could set time limits on the app or just disable the app from my phone temporarily until I was ready to rejoin.

That was the moment the absurdity of it all really sank in: We are pawns in Big Tech’s game. Go ahead, just test it out. Whatever answer you click on for why you want to deactivate, the website will give you a quick remedy for your solution, as long as that solution includes you continuing to use their platform in some capacity.

That’s insane. Like very, very crazy and bad. I don’t have fancy words or some elaborate missive that explains what I was thinking in that moment. I was mostly feeling like I had just wasted years of my life to algorithms that are set up to make me crave quick moments of distraction, of not being alone with my thoughts, of dopamine hits from red dots lighting up my screen and messages of yet-to-be-seen posts. 

In that moment, I saw not just a mountain; I saw a mountain range. I was finally seeing Zuckerberg’s Andes laid out in all its glory in front of me. 

About a year ago, I read New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose’s article titled “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched my Phone and Unbroke my Brain”. In his piece, Roose explained his experience with hiring a specialist who helped him develop a healthier relationship with technology. He quoted a science journalist who told him that by paying attention to how other people used their phones, he would learn more about how they were using their devices “to cope with boredom and anxiety.”

“I compare it to seeing a family member naked,” his therapist said. “Once you look around the elevator and see the zombies checking their phones, you can’t unsee it.”

My main takeaway from the article was that technology is making it nearly impossible for us to concentrate on ideas. How can we have big ideas if we’re not able to be alone with our thoughts for any stretch of time longer than about 10 seconds? We can’t, really. At the time, that idea scared me enough to change how I lived my life.

Just kidding, no it didn’t. I got sucked right back into the technological black hole that we’re all currently milling around in.

For context on the gravitational pull of this black hole: Nielsen reported in 2018 that “American adults spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media.” We are pulled in so many directions by technology that we are losing an ability to focus on substantial ideas. 

Alter wrote that “​​by one estimate, it takes up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task. If you open just twenty-five emails a day, evenly spaced across the day, you’ll spend literally no time in the zone of maximum productivity.” I saw my own bad habits called out in that statistic. In my daily life, I seem to have a tic where I check my notifications on my computer about once every 5 minutes. I’ve gotten slightly better at it lately, but it’s still quite bad. That one moment of checking my notifications, or my email, or my Slack notifications or the NYT homepage for no good reason likely causes some substantial setback in my brain’s ability to truly get into whatever I was thinking about or doing prior to that moment.

That’s frightening. 

For me, one of the biggest harms I started to recognize in my technology consumption (even with news sites that aren’t typically thought of as harmful) was that I was internalizing the stories of people suffering from various ailments, disasters, abuses, etc. from around the world and feeling my anxiety win a little battle every time I read a headline about it. It made my world feel darker. When you’re hearing the worst of the worst from the lives of 7.7+ billion people, life feels like an obstacle course with no easy way out.

We obviously should care about the lives of people who aren’t in our direct circles, but technology has made it feel like our worlds are constantly on the brink of disaster, when that’s often not the case. 

My diminished exposure to the world’s trauma since no longer checking social media has been a breath of fresh air. More than that, I’ve found myself focusing for longer periods of time and reading more. Instead of spending my nights scrolling through Twitter or TikTok or whatever else, I’ve found myself craving to read. I haven’t experienced that craving consistently since elementary school (everyone’s glory days of reading). 

In just under a month of being off social media, I’m already feeling many of its benefits. I can see the mountains with more clarity than when I was just standing at their base, not looking up, staring at my phone like the majority of people around me. I still have a long way to go to reduce my technology use even more, and I’m going to keep trying.

But I wanted to sound the alarm in case anyone’s willing to listen. I regret the amount of time I’ve already lost to looking at other people’s curated lives and tweeting about nothing to about seven people. I’m glad I finally shook myself awake. If you’re still half-asleep like I was for a year after reading the New York Times article, I highly recommend reading Alter’s book, “Irresistible.” 

Or email me. I’ll dump water on your face to wake you up.

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