Most of us own a smartphone. We can’t imagine our lives without these modern devices anymore. But besides the enormous possibilities we have with the new technology, there are some dangers connected as well.
Why these screens can even cause addiction (part 1), what consequences we face for our lives and how we can claim back our freedom (part 2), is the topic of this series.
Right here at the beginning, I want to recommend an awesome book, if you want to dig a bit deeper into the topic. Its brand-new from 2018 and written by Adam Alter: Irresistible. The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked . Most of the content here in this article is based on his research.
What is a screen addiction?
From addiction, we talk, even if it’s not the consumption of a substance when we continue to do something despite the negative long-term consequences.
And that’s what is happening with screen devices these days. They occupy a large time of our day. They keep us busy with messages and notifications as well as entertained. But people vastly underestimate their screen time by roughly 50%. On average in 2017 people in the developed world used their screens about 4 hours a day. Which means there are people who use their screens a lot less and those who use them for 12 hours or more a day, which usually fluctuates with age . If you add these hours we spend about 24 days each year with our screen devices (and often this is just social media entertainment and not even relaxation or education).
According to science, things, and people we are surrounded with for the most time every day influence our lives and shape the perception of our world . This makes a lot of sense. If we know that about 75% of us don’t even have to move our feet, to grab their phone for 24 hours each day, we get an idea about the meaning these devices have on our lives .
It gets this far, that we can’t spend a couple of minutes – for instance on the train or elevator – without checking our phone. We feel empty and restless if we realize we can’t use our phones (or worse, we forgot it). We even check our phones at night when we wake up because it’s just next to our bed.
Why can we get addicted to screens?
We probably are all aware of the increased time we spend on our screens. The devices are so well thought out and programmed, that we are manipulated, despite our wish to be in charge. Learning about the 6 most influential mechanisms might help us to become a bit more aware of why we can’t get enough from these devices.
World of choice: Often we choose to be entertained by our devices instead of connecting with the real world around us. Dealing with crying kids, annoying colleagues, paying our bills or doing unpleasant tasks seems to be so much less attractive than diving into a rewarding game or a movie, watching cat pictures or searching for sales. To a certain extent, we can choose our world. But the real world with all demands, expectations and to-do lists doesn’t disappear. Escaping reality too often creates a lot of stress, small problems grow into big issues and we waste a lot of time, we don’t get anything done.
Dopamine: Finding nice puppy pictures, funny videos or counting Instagram-Likes, creates a rush of the hormone dopamine in our brain. Everything which potentially causes addiction creates the release of dopamine. That’s what makes us happy and gives us a feeling of relief. The same is true for drugs, alcohol, and gambling. But we get used to dopamine which means we need more to feel the same amount of happiness after some time, more puppy pictures, more likes, more Facebook news…
Fast Reward: Usually rewards must be earned. You learn really hard and achieve a good mark or you train persistently and win a competition. We love the feeling of reward because it improves our self-perception as being a winner and being able to achieve something. Modern screen gadgets reinvented the reward system: now you can achieve rewards while on the screen (games), get thousands of Likes for an Instagram post, or new friends on Facebook. Getting a reward without the work beforehand seems to be a great deal. But deep inside we know, that we didn’t really achieve something great. In the end, we need more rewards, because they just don’t have the meaning of a real achievement and a short halftime. In the long run, there is a big risk that the young generation, which grows up with screens, will not be prepared to put in persistent effort into something worthwhile, because they never learned to wait for their reward (delay of gratification, 3). We will see how this might influence school and university education, businesses and companies.
Non-stop: Social media and screen entertainment provide non-stop impressions. The eradication of any stopping queue was just invented a couple of years ago. It causes users to spend more time on their screens because there is no natural reason to stop . Just imagine reading a good old-fashioned newspaper. Even if you read every single word, sooner or later you are finished reading it. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Twitter provide endless content. Autoplay functions put the next video in the loop. If you are not consciously deciding to stop, you easily spend hours watching while procrastinating on things you should do. These features are comparable to the setup of a Casino, where they removed all indicators of time. You don’t have any idea if its night-time or daytime or how much time you already spent there.
Random Rewards: We approach the world by trial and error and learn by rewards. If we are successful with what we do, we probably do it again. If we fail, we usually like to avoid repeating the unpleasant experience. There are many situations in life where we are rewarded for our performance, salary is on a common example. But what works even better in animals as well as in humans is a random reward system . While we know how much salary we can expect at the end of the month, we are much more excited, if we can’t predict when and how much we are rewarded. Just imagine typical screen games and their rewards or the Likes we get for a social media post. It’s impossible to predict the amount of gratification, so we try even harder because it feels so great when the dopamine is released.
Reaching goals: Setting and reaching certain goals is another highly addictive mechanism in screen devices and social media. It makes it very difficult for us to stop because it is so satisfying. Goals might be a 4-digit number of followers, a certain level in a game, or even the number of steps on our activity tracker. We are highly motivated to reach these goals, but by the time we get there, the pleasure just lasts a short moment. This means we have to aim for another, even higher goal, which includes more screen time and social media activity.
Unveiling the major causes of our screen addiction might be eye-opening for some of you. Take some time to observe your own habits of screen use. It might cause surprising results.
In part 2 we will have a deeper look in what kind of negative consequences we face long-term and how we can get back in charge with simple and small steps!
-  Adam Alter (2018): Irresistible. The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked. Penguin Books (Paperback & Audio Book)
-  Video: We spend four hours a day on our phones. Professor Adam Alter on Smartphone addiction.
-  Video: The Marshmallow Experiment – Instant Gratification (4:42 min)
-  Video: Why our screens make us less happy – Prof. Dr. Adam Alter
Here you can read part 2: How are we affected by our screen devices?