Just How Dangerous Can Tech Addiction Be?

Just How Dangerous Can Tech Addiction Be?

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Tech addiction(This post was originally published in June 2014.)

I’m not much of a gamer. Though I’ve watched my friends succumb in droves to the lures of Farmville, Candy Crush and 2048, I escaped mainly through sheer abstinence. But when Flappy Bird went viral, I came down with a brief but vicious case of the bird flu. Something about the deceptively simple yet oh-so-frustrating format of this iPhone app struck a chord. Eventually I even started seeing the game as a cloaked metaphor for addiction itself. The poor bird was just trying to keep flapping his stubby wings, staying afloat for as long as possible without literally hitting a pipe. The frustration of clearing 37, 38, 39 points—only to come crashing down and starting over at an utterly demoralizing zero—was eerily familiar.

Is Technology Really Addictive?

Yes, technology is unquestionably addictive. Whether your drug of choice is games, social media, texting, or the Internet itself, it can be hard to tear your eyes and fingers away from the screen. And while addiction doesn’t discriminate, this particular breed of dependence runs especially rampant in teenagers.

In response to this trend, India opened its first treatment center (or centre, as they’re called in the Eastern hemisphere) for technology addiction last month. Aptly located in Bangalore, India’s answer to Silicon Valley, the center/re is run by the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuroscience (Nimhans), India’s leading mental health hospital, where doctors came to the conclusion that addiction to technology required the same clinical setup for diagnosis and treatment as any other form of dependence.

Who is Seeking Treatment?

The teenage patients at the Nimhans center are completely consumed by texting, instant messaging, social media and smartphone games. Some of their parents called Nimhans when their mobile-happy childrens’ grades began plummeting; others claimed the devices had caused their kids to withdraw from family life. Work suffering? Relationships on the rocks? Isolation? Sounds like classic addiction. Kids sometimes complain of anxiety or loneliness when deprived of their phones or tablets. One 13-year-old even hanged herself when her mother told her to delete her Facebook account. Yes, it’s an extreme example that probably involved other undiagnosed mental health issues, but it’s a wakeup call for anyone who doubts this is a real problem. Surveys show tech addiction is already rampant in India, but as more and more of the country gains access to broadband and mobile services, rates are expected to rise.

How Do You Know If You Have a Problem?

The causes and consequences of tech addiction are still not well understood. TorrentFreak just reported on a new study out of Tennessee Tech exploring the link between Internet addiction, piracy, and other problematic online behavior. After surveying over 1,600 high school students about their online piracy habits, it found that kids who illegally download software are more likely to also be Internet addicts.  However, this correlation only held true for software downloads, not for movies or music, which are the most commonly pirated files. It’s really just common sense that the kids who spend the most time on the Internet are the ones illegally downloading software. Chances are the typical non-nethead teen doesn’t even need software beyond the basics of a browser and iTunes. Who even wants software that’s worth pirating? Nerds, that’s who. And who spends all day on the internet? Nerds, that’s who. QED.

The study also found that teens who pirated were more likely to have friends who were involved other illegal or “deviant” activities (maybe those infamous “You wouldn’t steal a car” ads were actually onto something). Torrent enthusiasts may not be stealing cars, but they do tend to hang with an unsavory lot: threatening others with violence online, sending unsolicited nude pictures, or using other people’s credit card info sans permission. Yikes. And unlike the link to addiction, this correlation held true not only for just for software downloads, but for regular old movies and music as well.

How Bad is It?

The extent to which machines have taken over our lives is more than a little disturbing. When the creator of FlappyBird pulled it off the market, he cited his concern that people were abusing the game in ways he had never imagined. But for most companies, the goal is to generate a legion of addicts. Entire books have been written on how to make your tech products as habit-forming as possible. Now the author of one such book, Nil Eyal, has addressed tech manufacturers’ responsibility for the addiction potential of their products. And it’s not just games, social media, or even porn that we’re talking about. Eyal tells the unsettling tale of a Yale professor who became addicted to her pedometer. Say what?

Okay, it’s not just any pedometer; it’s the Striiv Smart Pedometer, which is apparently the crack cocaine of fitness trackers. When users accumulate certain numbers of steps, they collect points which they can then use to build up virtual worlds (à la Farmville). It’s the points system that hooked Zoe Chance to such an extent that her family life was taking a hit. Chance knew she had a bit of a problem with video games well before picking up the Striiv. But this pedometer was meant to help her get fit, not control her every waking move, right? Chance described the device as “Satan in your pocket,” tempting her with challenges she just couldn’t pass up. And one night she went on a bender: between 12 and 2 am, she had climbed so many stairs—the equivalent of 1.25 Empire State Buildings—that she actually injured her neck. The injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise; it snapped her out of her denial and kept her off her feet for long enough to go cold turkey on Striiv.

Requiem For A Dream it ain’t, but all this casts a sinister light on the most beneficent-looking apps. In her TED talk, Chance suggests that a seemingly innocent activity can become addictive if it fulfills at least three of these six these human needs: significance, certainty, variety, connection, growth and contribution. This means we should be able to predict how addictive various activities can get, from Facebook to flash mobs.

Eyal adds to this argument by pointing out that tech companies know a lot more about the people using their products than, say, liquor companies do. (I mean, the guy behind the counter at my old BevMo knew me pretty well, but he doesn’t work for the Glenlivet, so Eyal’s argument holds.) But the question remains: if Facebook can see when someone has spent 23 of the last 24 hours liking their friends’ cat videos, do they have a duty to intervene?

Currently, there are few to no limits on how much time we spend with our digital companions of choice. But for Eyal, waiting for users to harm themselves amounts to exploitation. In his view, companies with this kind of window into their users’ lives “have an economic imperative and a social responsibility to identify addicts and intervene.” He proposes that all companies maintain a “Use and Abuse Policy” to establish an upper limit on activity. It’s uncharted territory for the industry, but anything that keeps people’s necks from cramping or eyeballs from bleeding has to be a good thing.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.