How often do you look at your cell phone screen? How many times have you checked your email in the last hour? How many hours a day do you spend on computer games? When did you last post a photo on Instagram and how often do you keep counting your LIKES?
In his sobering book, Irresistible: The Rise of The Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked, published in 2017, Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business Adam Alter argues that compulsive behavior involving the use of new Internet-based technologies has become a widespread phenomenon in the contemporary world – and it’s growing. Studies indicate that a whopping 40% of the global population suffer from some kind of tech-stimulated behavioral addiction.
Using dozens of fascinating stories and case studies to expose the traits and hidden mechanisms applied by social media, exercise apps, video streaming services, gambling and shopping sites, computer games, and all kinds of devices to hook customers, the author carefully examines the sources of addictive behaviors, their designers, and what makes them so alluring. At the same time, he tries to offer possible solutions to the problem, ways of minimizing its dangerous effects and how we can tap into the same compelling ideas and features for more beneficial ends.
Among the most interesting (and the scariest) points made in the book, we would highlight the following.
Behaviors can be as addictive as substance abuse.
The same areas of the brain are triggered by either. These neurons similarly get soaked in dopamine, a chemical that, when attached to receptors, produces intense feelings of pleasure. Perhaps the only difference would be that the intensity of the experience is far stronger when induced by drugs. As tolerance develops eventually, though, the same outcomes are seen; users keep trying to repeat the highs by consuming the substance in larger doses or by indulging in the same kind of behavior more often. They end up losing control of their lives; isolating themselves from family and friends; giving up on the real world; neglecting basic principles of hygiene; underperforming at work; compromising their financial stability; getting depressed. They ruin their lives.
Never get high on your own supply.
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and the creative mind behind highly compelling devices such as the iPhone, would not allow his kids near an iPad. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, strictly controlled the use of electronic devices by his family members – never allowing the use of screens in the kids’ bedrooms, for example. Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium would get books for his sons, but never an iPad. It looks like, having seen the consequences of addiction to technology first hand, they were extra careful about it.
The ingredients of addictive behavior.
The DNA of behavioral addiction carries one or more of these characteristics: “compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that slowly become more and more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections”.
Declining levels of empathy and attention span.
Significant plunges in levels of empathy and attention span among children and teenagers can be traced to the rise of Internet addiction. Girls can be meaner on social networks and boys won’t stop playing video games, relying on their online cohorts for emotional support. Sleep deprivation also seems to be on the increase, especially in the last decade, due to overuse of electronic devices at night, which tend to emit a bluish light that (as opposed to the reddish-yellow light from candles and wood fires) interferes with the production of melatonin, in turn impairing sleep.
Dangerous computer games.
Popular games such as World of Warcraft and Flappy Bird are highly addictive and can foster destructive behavior; gamers will spend hours or even days playing compulsively, neglecting social life, work, school and even personal hygiene habits. Some game manufacturers have even decided to pull products from the market, possibly remorseful for the damage they have inflicted.
The metrification of everything we do and the need to constantly overcome obstacles that get progressively more challenging are very much part of the fabric of the internet and its many alluring apps and websites. We constantly crave more followers or friends on Facebook, more likes on Instagram; more calories burnt or more steps taken on our gym app… Even worse: we tend to compete not only with ourselves, but with others. This is an impossible game to win. This insatiable longing for society’s validation is not healthy.
How can we alleviate the problem?
Most readers will come to the conclusion that being aware of the problem is obviously the first step. Books like Irresistible certainly help in that respect. Setting boundaries for the use of Internet-based tech by kids and offering them attractive alternatives in the real world would certainly aid in the prevention of addiction.
Innovative support programs and institutions, such as reSTART in Washington State, the first treatment center for game addicts, will need to become more widespread and respected. A strong concern, however, is that, unlike substance abuse, abstinence is not an option if you consider addiction to email, social media, smartphones or the general use of the internet, as they a part of the very fabric of today’s social and professional world.
Regulations imposing limits on companies, preventing them from fostering addiction by refining research, tests, and studies into alluring features to incorporate into their products are definitely required. Those traits must stop short of leading customers towards abusive behaviors.