The Four Horsemen of the Tech Addiction Apocalypse

Over the last 12 years I’ve been in Silicon Valley, I’ve heard a constant stream of complaints about technology being “addicting”.

But, interestingly, I’ve never heard this complaint when hanging out with non-techie friends. Perhaps this is because I spend most of my time around those involved with tech—it might be a sampling problem.

But if you do a search for “technology addiction” or “app addiction”, most of the articles are written in fancy publications like The New York Times, NPR, Forbes, etc.

It seems like the only people that are really concerned about what they call “smartphone addiction” are wealthy, type-A, technology-conscious overachievers.

Which gives us a hint of what some of the hullaballoo is really about.

After looking a great number of tech-addition complaints from articles posted in the last couple of years, I think that the complaints can be put into 4 categories:

  • Category 1: “But… how will I get my PhD while working a full time job?”
  • Category 2: “Those young whippersnappers!”
  • Category 3: Petty moralizing
  • Category 4: Because… Science!

Let’s look at these in a little more depth.

Category 1: “But… how will I get my PhD while working a full time job?”

Crazy, type-A people like us have a problem. We feel bad when we’re not “being productive”. When we binge watch for more than 3 or 4 hours, we start to feel guilt gnawing away at our heels. We need to get up and do something productive… like reading a book by a 19th century Russian novelist or doing research for our “side business”. Every 10 minutes we check email like clockwork. We don’t want to miss out on an emergency at work, after all—and our boss needs to know that we’re #1.

But this insane drive to be “productive” and to constantly “do something of value” is not normal. Most people don’t feel guilty when they’re not figuring out some way to advance their career or gain prestige and money.

So we type-A folk use our phones a bit more than we’d like, feel guilty about our lack of hyper-focus on our goals, and then blame technology for addicting us. It’s a great way of absolving ourselves… we’re not responsible for our lack of ability to focus for 12 hours straight—no! It’s that gosh darn technology!

This is exemplified in passages like this:

"ONE evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

I was horrified. All my life, reading books has been a deep and consistent source of pleasure, learning and solace. Now the books I regularly purchased were piling up ever higher on my bedside table, staring at me in silent rebuke.

Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

During the workday, I checked my email more times than I cared to acknowledge, and spent far too much time hungrily searching for tidbits of new information about the presidential campaign, with the election then still more than a year away."

Category 2: “Those young whippersnappers!”

A lot of the talk re: tech addiction seems to be an excuse for people to satisfy the generational urge to talk sh*t about the up-and-coming generation (or two). Those gen-X’ers? Selfish losers. Oh and those millennials? Doing vapid stuff on their phones all the time!

Here’s a hilarious example of that:

“If you’re told you aren’t allowed to use your phone for the next week, for most people that produces anxiety. There was an interesting study done where teenagers were given a choice: You can either break a bone in your body or you can break your phone. There are two things that are funny about the response.

A total of 46% of people prefer a broken bone to a broken phone. But even the people who say they’d prefer a broken phone, when you watch them make the decision, it’s not like a snap decision. They agonize and start to think about all the things that could go wrong and what happens if I don’t have my phone. A lot of them say, “At least when I’m recovering from the broken bone, I have the phone to comfort me.” This really is an addiction. It’s pretty extreme.”

This is one of the most hilarious stats I’ve ever heard—and I can’t believe the researchers fell for it.

Is it obvious to anyone else that these kids are, in all likelihood, just messing with the researchers? Only a completely humorless businessperson or scientist who didn’t go through a normal adolescence could take responses like these seriously. I can imagine each of the students shooting wry smiles to their friends and giggling as they tell the interviewer that “no, I’d rather break my pinky than go without my… my… *giggles* phone”.

This also highlights why surveys are (usually) such a waste of time and resources. Don’t listen to the ridiculous things people say—look at what they actually do. Not one of those kids would actually break a bone to keep their phone safe.

But, hey, at least the researcher got to point out how dumb the up-and-coming generation is? Right?

The funny thing is that the joke’s on him. 

Category 3: Petty moralizing

Whenever anything new comes along, a substantial portion of the adult population feels the need to put it down and claim that it’s destructive or evil in some way… even if there’s no evidence that’s the case. The best way to make something seem like a sin is to associate it with sex in some way. Hilariously, that has been done with smartphones quite a bit. Remember all those articles on sexting?

Well, they’re still coming out. In fact, yesterday someone sent me an article in The Independent that talked about this very subject. Here’s an excerpt:

“In a recent survey of more than 1,500 teachers, around two-thirds said they were aware of pupils sharing sexual content, with as many as one in six of those involved of primary school age.

More than 2,000 children have been reported to police for crimes linked to indecent images in the past three years.

“So many of my clients are 13 and 14 year-old-girls who are involved in sexting, and describe sexting as ‘completely normal’,” said Ms Saligari

Many young girls in particular believe that sending a picture of themselves naked to someone on their mobile phone is “normal”, and that it only becomes “wrong” when a parent or adult finds out, she added.”

So, smartphones are evil because they lead kids to engage in sexual behavior… even though every single adolescent on the planet will express those same urges and behavior regardless. Like we adults are any better.

Category 4: Because… Science!

This category is my favorite. The media seems to love serious sounding people with a chimpanzee’s grasp of brain science.

The argument that these people put across goes something like this: Dopamine is released when people play slot machines and smoke crack. When people use a smartphone, dopamine is also released. Therefore, using a smartphone is like being a gambling addict or compulsively smoking crack. IT’S SCIENCE!

The problem with this is that dopamine is released whenever a person does pretty much anything. It’s one of the main chemicals involved in the learning system, and it helps us make connections between stimuli in our environment and valuable things (rewards). So anything, from going into a new pizza place, to seeing your friend, to finding an unexpected quarter on the ground, releases dopamine. And it does a lot more than that, too. As Wikipedia says: “Inside the brain, dopamine plays important roles in executive functions, motor control, motivation, arousal, reinforcement, and reward, as well as lower-level functions including lactation, sexual gratification, and nausea.”

A message to all the thought leaders talking about tech addiction out there: please please please stop referencing dopamine. It's only making you look like a dope.

Get it? 🤓

*End rant*

Jason Hreha