LThe school near the GP practice where I work held an internet safety evening recently, subtitled “How to Keep Your Child Safe Online”. It was in the school hall, hosted by police officers, and explained the role of something called the “Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre”. The blurb on the leaflet promised parents of children between five and 11 would learn more about the dangers of the internet, and in particular, social media. I’m not sure when it became normal for kids to have to cope with malicious online messages, and be savvy about paedophiles masquerading as peers. In Irresistible, Adam Alter makes the frightening case that even without these hazards, modern connectivity threatens the health of not just our children, but everyone.
A child I knew of killed herself after a humiliating post was shared widely around her school. An adolescent patient told me that he wakes three or four times each night to check his phone for messages, and struggles to concentrate in class. Last week a social worker told me that children in an “at-risk” family were being neglected – the mum lying on the sofa playing with her phone while the kids put themselves to bed. I know a six-year-old who walks with his hands held to his chest, thumbs blurred by movement, adopting his dad’s habitual posture, though he doesn’t yet have a phone.
Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in. “As a kid I was terrified of drugs,” he writes. “I had a recurring nightmare that someone would force me to take heroin and that I’d become addicted.” It’s unsurprising he’s become a psychologist of addiction, and his intoxicant of choice is the internet. In a chapter subtitled “Never Get High on Your Own Supply” he makes the observation that neither Steve Jobs of Apple nor Evan Williams of Twitter have allowed their children to play with touch screens.
A couple of years ago a programmer called Kevin Holesh, worried that his own screen time was getting out of control, wrote an app called Moment, which tracks how long a user is interacting with a screen (it doesn’t count time on phone calls). The results were startling, even among those concerned enough to download the app: for 88% it was more than an hour a day, with the average being three hours. The typical user checked their phone 39 times in 24 hours. By comparison, in 2008, before smartphones became widespread, adults spent just 18 minutes a day on their phone.
Why does any of this matter? Surely time being informed, engaged and entertained by our phones is time well spent? Not necessarily: “life is more convenient than ever”, writes Alter, “but convenience has also weaponised temptation”. Childhood has changed. Alter quotes a young girl: “I don’t feel like a child any more… at the end of sixth grade [when all her peers got phones] I just stopped doing everything I normally did. Playing games, art recess, playing with toys, all of it, done.”
Etymologically speaking, to be addicted is to be a slave, and behavioural addiction is “a deep attachment to an experience that is harmful and difficult to do without”. Alter is good on the distinction between an addiction (the indulgence of which brings pleasure) and a compulsion (the indulgence of which merely brings relief from restless anxiety). For many of us, checking phones has become compulsive.
The middle part of Alter’s book is illuminating on the ways that designers engineer behavioural addiction. He examines goal-setting, and why users of Fitbits often exercise to the point of injury; the dangers of inconsistent but rewarding feedback (counting those “likes”); the importance of a sense of progress (such as counting followers, or advancing through a game). In a chapter emphasising gaming he examines the addictive power of escalating difficulty (remember Tetris?). There are a fascinating few pages on cliffhangers, and the power of streaming TV. As to social interaction: “a brain raised on online friendships can never fully adjust to interactions in the real world”, he writes, and refers to a 2012 paper, which suggested that a smartphone, placed idly in a room, can impoverish the relationship between two randomly assigned partners even if they don’t touch it. The paper concluded that “mobile communication devices such as phones may, by their mere presence, paradoxically hold the potential to facilitate as well as to disrupt human bonding and intimacy”, presumably because they represent the possibility of connection with absent others.
In the 1970s it was shown that pigeons would peck a bar more frenetically if the reward delivered was unpredictable. A squirrel monkey in a cage, with a wire into the pleasure centre of its brain, will ignore food and water in order to go on stimulating the wire. These neuropsychology experiments are well known, but Alter retells them to illustrate how the latest technology traps us in a lab cage of connectivity. For an addict, there’s little opportunity to escape.
Some will find this shrill and alarmist – new technology has always had its catastrophisers. It may have been that the girl who killed herself would have done so without the public shaming that followed her post; there have always been neglectful parents; my teenage patient might have struggled to concentrate without being woken by his phone. Socrates said that writing would make us all forgetful; Caxton’s printing press destroyed the economy of scribes; television was condemned for vulgarising and trivialising entertainment.
The next big thing
Connectivity is here to stay, and Alter suggests that parents in conflict with their kids over it would do well to stay approachable, calm, informed and realistic, and remember that technology brings solutions along with problems. It’s easy to monitor usage or block certain sites, and have the likes and retweets hidden on your social media. It’s worth remembering, too, that the status quo won’t last long: tablet computers have only been around for seven years, smartphones for nine, and within 10 years both may well have gone the way of pagers.
What’s the next big thing? Probably virtual reality, currently in its infancy. Imagine how addictive news will be when you can walk alongside each foreign correspondent. Imagine how addictive games will be when they put you into the scene. Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus VR, and is investing heavily in its applications. Most of us have seen families out for a meal ignoring one another while each strokes a screen; a decade from now they may all be wearing headsets. ^ (The Guardian)