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How technology companies are keeping you addicted to your phone

On average, people spend around three hours a day on our phones. How did our use of technology become so compulsive? And how do we fight back?

Almost every day I start my morning the same way: by staring at my phone. At first I look only sporadically, but then I attend to it with more focus. I check overnight news alerts and Twitter, in case I’ve slept through a big crisis somewhere in the world, I scan my email in-box, and then I scroll lazily through my Facebook timeline until I am almost certainly running late.

Throughout the rest of the day, my phone is a constant companion. Without it I would be lost – both literally, because I have no sense of direction, and metaphorically. My phone is my diary, my tether to the outside world, my distraction from boredom, and a five-inch shield against unwanted conversation with strangers. If this sounds over the top it is also completely normal. An app called Moment, which allows users to monitor their phone use, found that on average people spent just under three hours a day on their smartphone and checked it 39 times.

Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, believes that adults react to modern technology in much the same way as toddlers respond to lift buttons: we are compulsive clickers and button-pressers, delighted at our power to make lights shine and buzzers ring with the tips of our fingers.

He has collected a trove of alarming statistics to illustrate the extent of this compulsion. One of the most painful to read (especially for a journalist used to having her messages ignored) is the finding that almost three-quarters of all work emails are read within six seconds of being received. A few decades ago paper-pushers could enjoy the small luxury of a few hours of uninterrupted concentration, but now office workers are slaves to their in-boxes. The frantic opening of unread emails is unlikely to be driven by employers, because few jobs require a response within seconds. Instead, it seems to be a function of technology. When we notice a message landing in our in-box, we can’t resist the urge to check it.

Alter argues that many of us are becoming addicted to the technology we use – we are obsessive gamers, Fitbit fanatics, Netflix bingers, or incorrigible social media stalkers – partly because these products and websites were designed to draw us in and hold our attention. A few more statistics: a study in 2010 concluded that 40 per cent of the population suffers from some form of internet-based addiction, whether to gaming, email or porn; 46 per cent of respondents in another survey in 2015 said they couldn’t live without their phone; in a third study, 59 per cent said they were dependent on social media, even though this reliance makes them unhappy.

But what does Alter mean by internet “addiction”? When we experience ­pleasure, on eating ice cream, or receiving a Facebook Like, or shooting heroin, our levels of the hormone dopamine rise. People can ­become addicted to a substance or behaviour when they start relying on this dopamine rush as an emotional salve, perhaps for feelings of depression, or loneliness, or worthlessness. In this way, Fitbit fanatics and heroin addicts are both chasing dopamine highs – heroin is just a stronger and more direct way of achieving the hit – to seek short-term emotional relief, while causing themselves long-term harm.

The author points to growing scientific recognition of behavioural addiction. In 2013, the term entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Addictive behaviours have existed for a long time, but in recent decades they’ve ­become more common, harder to resist, and more mainstream,” Alter warns. “The age of behavioural addiction is still young, but early signs point to a crisis.”

The media occasionally report on people dying during days-long gaming binges, or they run interviews with troubled and indebted online shopping addicts in homes crammed full of useless purchases made on Amazon. Alter profiles a former gaming addict who finally sought help after holing himself up in his flat for five weeks, playing for 20 hours a day, neglecting to shower and accumulating 140 missed calls. These are the extreme examples, and few people would argue that the behaviour isn’t pathological. But what about the rest of us?

If, as the statistics above suggest, almost half the population has some form of internet addiction, are we really all sick, or has the benchmark for addiction merely been set too low? The figures are often less frightening than they seem at first reading. For instance, the 46 per cent of people who said they “couldn’t live without” their phones are unlikely to be suggesting that without them they would die, in the way that someone withdrawing too fast from alcohol could. I am very dependent on my phone, but I’m equally dependent on my house keys and my bank card.

Alter adds that a smaller proportion of people reported that they would rather endure physical injury than damage to their smartphone. Again, that statement is not as worrying as it sounds. Human beings are willing all the time to undergo some physical pain for relatively trivial reasons: to dangle bits of plastic from their ears, to display a smooth and hairless physique on the beach, to dance en pointe. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but I’d rather stub my toe than drop my phone down the toilet (again).

Admittedly, most people concede that, for all the advantages of modern communications technology, they sometimes wish they exerted more control over their box-set marathons, obsessive checking of email, or Instagram mania. Yet too often the most sophisticated arguments about the effects of technology on the human psyche are drowned out by an excess of hysterical statistics (remember the headline-grabbing but totally meaningless claim that human beings now have an attention span shorter than that of goldfish?)

Irresistible contains smart and ­fascinating analysis of how social media apps, gambling sites and computer games have been engineered to hook users. It is Alter’s discussion of modern slot machines and gambling websites that illustrates the power of design most starkly. Most people get fed up quickly if they experience a long and unbroken losing streak, but gamblers don’t need to win to stay hooked. What matters is that they occasionally experience the illusion of winning. A gambler who hits a $1 jackpot can be made to feel like a winner even if he paid $1.50 for the game, especially if his dollar windfall is marked by celebratory flashing lights and victory music. (The soundtrack and lights, known in the industry as “juice”, are important. Researchers at the University of British Columbia modelled a “rat casino” and found that the rodents are far more willing to choose high-risk strategies to “win” a sugar pellet if their victory is ­accompanied by lights and music.)

As casinos are not allowed to manipulate odds in the US, many employ “luck ambassadors” who swoop in with a meal voucher, a free drink or a cash reward just when gamblers are about to give up. Machines can perform the same function much more effectively by siphoning off a small percentage of a gambler’s losses and then, using an algorithm to determine the moment he or she might otherwise walk away, delivering a small “win” to keep the person playing.

In the same way, the teams that design social media apps and computer games understand precisely what is required to motivate an individual to continue an activity and know how these elements can be built in to their products. For instance, successful computer games have good “juice” and build on users’ instinctive desire for a feeling of progress; they move up through levels as they strive for goals that are just beyond reach – the next enemy to defeat or prize to win. Social media sites such as Instagram harness human beings’ natural desire for strong social connections and our attraction to what Alter describes as “irresistible but unpredictable feedback”: it feels good when dozens of people like your arty hotel breakfast shot, but it’s not easy to crack the formula. Some posts are unexplained successes; others are unexpectedly ignored.

Alter’s writing roams widely. Irresistible is littered with fascinating asides and case studies, of Sigmund Freud’s cocaine addiction, the curious link between Parkinson’s medication and behavioural addiction, various cruel but intriguing experiments on ­rodents. It also offers insights that apply far beyond the scope of internet addiction.

For instance, Alter argues that one of the reasons we are so keen to accumulate followers and Likes on social media, or to hit Fitbit targets, is that we live in a goal-obsessed culture. Unfortunately, in permanently chasing goals we ultimately lower our life satisfaction. More often than not, we either fail, or find that attaining a target is anticlimactic: a life ambition achieved can quickly become a small and unremarkable milestone once we have a bigger and better destination in our sights.

A side effect of our target-driven society is that many of us work longer than we really want or need to. Alter cites one experiment that paid undergraduates a chocolate for every 20 minutes they endured listening to a loud, unpleasant sound. The students stopped listening after accumulating ten chocolates on average – but ate just four of them. Although they had no need for the extra treats, once they were on a chocolate-earning conveyor belt they found it hard to step off. Whether we’re pulling all-nighters at work, or at home watching TV, most of us could benefit from a clearer sense of when we might feel better just clocking off.

And yet, as is so often the case with books with a bold premise and a certain self-help element, Alter’s recommendations seem disappointingly piecemeal. His tips include limiting children’s access to technology, not keeping your phone permanently to hand and turning off episodes before the cliff-hanger to avoid going on a Netflix binge.

It’s a shame he missed the opportunity to delve deeper into the philosophical and political questions raised by internet addiction. Even the most sporadic internet user should be concerned by the colossal (and often hidden) power that tech designers exert over their customers.

So, how can we hold technology firms accountable? Could and should we introduce legislation to curb their most predatory practices, in the way that governments regulate the gambling, alcohol, tobacco and even fast-food industries? And if so, how could such laws be enforced? We don’t yet have answers. In the meantime, the only weapon available to consumers is awareness. If you suffer from separation anxiety every time you part with your phone, that’s because someone designed it that way.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching by Adam Alter is published by Bodley Head (354pp, £18.99​)

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

Photo: Getty
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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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