We've created a society of addicts - Keith Roulston editorial
As the federal government moves toward legalizing the use and sale of marijuana this summer, many Canadians still wonder if it’s the right move. However, we have long since happily accepted a far more addictive presence for the majority of our population: smart phones and social media.
Mounting evidence shows millions of smart phone users are showing all the symptoms of addiction. Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who teaches at both Columbia University and the University of Toronto and wrote the book The Brain that Changes Itself, says signs of addiction are evident in many smart phone users: compulsivity, loss of control of the activity, craving, psychological dependence and using something even if it’s harmful.
What’s more, the phones and the apps on them are designed to be that way. Neuroscientists were hired by companies to help them design systems that make us check our phones again and again to see what’s new. Montreal neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that human brains evolved seeking novelty as a way of surviving, exploring what foods were safe to eat, for instance. Now that basic urge triggers our helpless need to answer the latest Facebook notification or the buzz of an incoming e-mail. When our brains discover something new they release a spurt of dopamine which gives us pleasure.
Some of the people who helped design these systems are now feeling guilt over their creations in what’s called “the attention economy”.
“I think we all knew in the back of our minds... something bad could happen,” Chamath Palihapitia, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, told a meeting at Stanford University. “The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
Tristan Harris, former product manager at Google has gone so far as to create Time Well Spent, a non-profit which aims to raise awareness among consumers about the dangers of the attention economy. You can’t look away from your phone because these companies are “literally using the power of billion-dollar computers to figure out what to feed you,” he says.
Sean Parker, former president of Facebook admitted “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
They did it for money. Since these applications are free, they earn their revenue from selling information collected from the people who use the app. The more times people use the app, the more information they gather. They sell advertising to companies on the basis of targeting the audience of most use to the advertisers. Then, the more times people check their phone, the more times they’ll see the clients’ ads. Studies show average users check their phones 150 times a day. Add it all up and smart phone users spend three to five hours a day looking at their phones – the equivalent of seven years over an average lifetime.
And it’s changing us. We’ve all seen people sitting side by side, not talking because each was attending to his phone. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and research associate in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, interviewed 1,000 kids between the ages of four and 18 and many of them told her they no longer run to the door to greet their parents because the adults are so often on their phones when they get home.
Researchers say attention spans are dropping and even IQs are diminishing because distracted people have a reduced ability to accomplish complex tasks.
It may get worse because of the unintended consequences of these apps (or who knows, perhaps these companies planned them, although it sounds like the plot of a 1970s James Bond movie about industrialists trying to take over the world). Neuroscientists say these tools are actually reshaping the way our brains work.
Dr. Doidge says that teenagers need time alone to develop their sense of who they are as individuals but today they’re never alone. Instead they see themselves reflected 24 hours a day in others’ tweets and Instagram posts.
Even sadder, psychologists say that the silent communication that takes place between a nursing mother and her child is important to the child’s development, but if a mother sees this as down time and a good opportunity to check her phone, that essential bonding is lost.
Everyone knows the world has changed since the invention of the iPhone a decade ago, but it’s turning out it has changed more than we realized. These addictive tools are not going away. Since the companies behind them are global, we can’t hope for government regulation to save us from ourselves. We need to train ourselves and our kids how to get the best from them without also getting the worst.