In recent months, many tech goliaths have been in the spotlight for, presumably, unintended byproducts of their famed innovations. They have been accused of creating addictive products that ultimately result in negative psychological and physical consequences for its consumers. Most of the press has buzzed around social media addiction and how digital devices, especially smartphones, are exacerbating these problems. The dissemination of these articles and the growing commentary highlighting the addictive nature of the technology we consume daily is a much needed wake up call. But, for whom?
Facebook, being the world’s largest social media network, has been hit the hardest by the recent wave of criticism on addictive tech. Two of Facebook’s former employees shed light that its addictive nature is by no means an accident, and that Facebook is purposely engineered to exploit people’s attention.
Facebook’s former president, Sean Parker, explained that Facebook was built on this fundamental question: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” As a result, they created a product that gives you “a little dopamine hit every once in a while” with a social validation feedback loop attached. The more you use it, the more hits of dopamine you get, and the more you will crave over and over again. They consciously knew they were “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” but that didn’t matter to them.
Justin Rosenstein, the engineer behind Facebook’s now infamous “like” button, also has a similar sentiment. He denounced companies like Facebook and Google for creating highly addictive products. He is especially concerned about the psychological effects on people and how those products are constantly vying for their attention. Rosenstein said, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.” A simple one-click button that was supposed to send a tiny pocket of positivity has now turned into an addictive drug. A *ping* here and there just isn’t cutting it anymore.
What started out to be a platform for college students to connect is now frequently compared to the likes of an addictive substance such as cigarettes or cocaine. Even Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, made a comment suggesting Facebook should be regulated like tobacco.
Another company that has recently been handed the unwanted mic in this conversation is Apple. In January 2018, two of Apple’s investors wrote an open letter to the company asking they take the initiative to study the effects of its products and make it easier for parents to limit usage for their children. This letter made headlines not only in the tech space but also the financial sector, potentially adding another stakeholder, i.e. investors and board members, to the debate. Apple is being thrown in the ring because what was once viewed as a breakthrough product in design and functionality, the iPhone (and iPad), is now viewed as the itch that never goes away when you are constantly craving something.
Even Nir Eyal, an influential thought-leader who wrote a bestselling book on how to design addictive technology has begun to question the impact products have on their consumers. In a recent blog post of his, he challenges the tech industry to hold themselves to a higher ethical bar. He proposes what he calls a “regret test.” Eyal writes in his post, “If users would regret taking the action, the technique fails the regret test and shouldn’t be built into the product, because it manipulated people into doing something they didn’t want to do. Getting people to do something they didn’t want to do is no longer persuasion — it’s coercion.”
Much of the discourse in this conversation regarding addictive tech has pointed fingers at the tech companies. It is their fault they have created these addictive products and it is their fault that people have abused the digital products to a point where each use is akin to another hit of dope. But let’s take a step back and think about that. As consumers of these products, are we truly free of blame? Would there be a company, no less a product, if there were no consumers in the first place?
To answer this question I raised in the beginning of this post, I think the recent string of news and events regarding this digital addiction should be a wake up call not only to companies but also to us, the consumers. I believe that as consumers, we have the responsibility to control and know what we consume. Although the consequences or effects may not be as apparent as if you were to be hungover after a night of five tequila shots and four gin & tonics, everything has its pros and cons. Everything to a certain degree can be dissected and analyzed. The reason, the opportunity cost, the result.
Disclaimer: I am not a parent and do not plan on being one anytime soon so I may not fully understand some of the reasons why parents make certain decisions for their children. Thank you.
Many of the studies conducted around social media and its effects are primarily focused on children and teens. They are probably the most at-risk population, especially since most of them will or already do grow up with technology at a very early age. How many times have you been out to dinner at a restaurant and you see a toddler, sitting in a booster seat, with eyes glued to her tablet screen? How many times have you heard the piercing cries of a child when his father takes away his cell phone because they are getting off the train at the next stop? This behavior should be of concern and yet, it’s too late and it’s now the norm. If anything, it would be a pleasant surprise for a parent to find another person’s child without an Apple product.
Now I am sure parents are not immediately thinking about the potential harms or dangers of giving their child a digital device. That’s not to say, they aren’t learning new vocabulary and social skills by watching Paw Patrol, and perhaps this is better than them sitting and fidgeting, learning zilch. However, at what point is it too much? How about when the child is now speaking British-English because she hears Peppa the Pig more than she does her own non-British accented mother and father (not that anything is wrong with British-English, of course)? When he gravitates to the tablet even when there are friends over for a play date (although they could be playing a group game)? Parents do their research before purchasing a stroller, parents tell their kids to stay away from bullies, parents do so much to protect their own progeny — why does it stop when it comes to tech smart-phones, or digital devices?
Moving on from parents’ accountability for their young children, let’s talk about consumers who are able to make their own decisions. Hitting up your drug dealer for a fix is, for one, an example. Substance abuse and addiction do not happen overnight, however. You might be predisposed to tech addiction growing up in the “digital age,” but that is not a good enough reason to lack diligence about your digital decisions. Too much of anything is never good for you. Why is that any different for the technology that has made such a significant impact on our day-to-day lives?
I don’t think digital addiction is an easy thing to identify and most certainly, not an easy thing to break free from. As with most addictions, digital addiction requires acknowledgement, tolerance, and patience. This trifecta can lead to motivation and desire to change. This change is what drives us to get a handle on our addictions, to break free from our ticky-tacky little boxes. You aren’t alone. You, yourself, need to be your own best friend. You need to help yourself and take the first step. By placing the blame on the companies, you are only fooling yourself by not acknowledging the role you play in reinforcing the addictive cycle those digitally connected products thrive on. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. However, I think as consumers, we have to take the plunge instead of waiting for profit-seeking, tech companies to make the first move. Who knows — at the current rate at which things are going, that first move may never come.