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15 May 2023

How Big Tech made us screen addicts

Gaia Bernstein’s Unwired argues that smart devices are engineered to keep our children hooked. Can we hold the industry to account?

By Simon Ings

In 2005, the journal Obesity Research published a study that, had we but known it, told us everything we needed to know about our coming addiction to digital devices.

The paper, “Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake” was about soup. Researchers led by Brian Wansink of Cornell University invited volunteers to lunch. One groupate as much soup as they wanted from regular bowls. The other ate from bowls that were bolted to the table and refilled automatically from below. Deprived of the “stopping signal” of an empty bowl, this latter group ate 73 per cent more than the others – and had no idea that they had overeaten.

It’s a tale that must haunt the dreams of Aza Raskin, the man who invented, then publicly regretted, “infinite scroll”. That’s the way mobile phone apps (from Facebook to Instagram and Twitter to Snapchat) provide endless lists of fresh content to the user, regardless of how much content has already been consumed.

[See also: Social media is taking a dangerous toll on teenage girls]

Gaia Bernstein, an American law professor, includes infinite scroll in her book’s catalogue of addictive smart-device features. But this is as much about what these devices don’t do. For instance in his 2022 book Stolen Focus Johann Hari wonders why Facebook never tells you which of your friends are nearby and up for a coffee. Well, the answer’s obvious enough: because lonely people, self-medicating with increasing quantities of social media, are a way of making money.

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What do we mean when we say that our mobile phones and tablets and other smart devices are addictive? The idea of behavioural addiction was enshrined in DSM-5, the manual of mental disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association, in 2013. DSM-5 is a bloated beast, and yet its flaky-sounding “behavioural addictions” – which, on the face of it, could make a mental disorder of everything we like to do – have proved remarkably robust, as medicine reveals how addictions, compulsions and enthusiasms share the same neurological pathways. You can make humans (and not just humans) addicted to pretty much anything. All you need to do is weaponise the environment.

And the environment, according to Bernstein’s spare, functional and frightening account, is most certainly weaponised. Teenagers in the US, says Bernstein, spend barely a third of the time partying compared to their counterparts in the Eighties, and the number of teens who get together regularly with their friends has halved between 2000 and 2015. If ever there was a time to market a service to lonely people by making them more lonely, it’s now.

For those of us who want to sue GAMA (Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple) for our children’s lost childhood, galloping anxiety, poor impulse control, obesity, insomnia and raised suicide risk, the challenge is to demonstrate that it’s screentime that’s done all this damage to how they feel and how they behave. And that, in an era of helicopter parenting, is hard to do. In her 2014 book It’s Complicated, danah boyd shows how difficult it’s going to be to separate the harms inflicted by a young person’s iPhone from all the benefits that person enjoys. To hear boyd tell it, teenagers “obsessed” with social media are simply trying to recreate, for themselves and each other, a social space denied to them by anxious parents, hostile authorities and a mass media bent on exaggerating every conceivable out-of-doors danger.

The Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the stay-at-home, see-no-one trend among young people. Children’s average daily time online doubled from three to six hours during lockdown. It used to be that 4 per cent of US children spent more than eight hours a day in front of a smart screen. Now more than a quarter of them do. Like-for-like figures are hard to come by, but the situation in the UK seems hardly better, with young teenagers spending an average of more than five hours a day online.

[See also: The new politics of time]

Nor have we merely inherited this dismal state of affairs; we’ve positively encouraged it, stuffing our schools with technological geegaws in the fond belief that IT will improve and equalise classroom performance. (Silicon Valley higher-ups, meanwhile send their children to Waldorf schools, which use chalk, right up until eighth grade (year nine).)

Bernstein regularly peppers an otherwise quite dry account with some telling personal testimony. A furious fifth-grader (year six), deprived of his iPad, who caused his family’s car to plunge off the highway. A ten-year-old’s birthday party conducted in complete silence (at least until the cake turned up), while the kids played on their phones. She also recalls meeting one mum whose son was studying history through a Roblox version of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (a game set in Ancient Greece). “Since then, whenever she asks him to get off Roblox, he insists it is homework.”

Bernstein believes there’s more to all this than a series of unfortunate events. She thinks the makers of smart devices knew exactly what they were doing, as surely as the tobacco companies knew that the cigarettes they manufactured caused cancer.

Bernstein reckons we’re at a legal tipping point: this is her playbook for making GAMA pay for getting us addicted to glass.

Here’s what we already know about how companies respond to being caught out in massive wrongdoing. First, they ignore the problem. (In 2018 an internal Facebook presentation warned: “Our algorithm exploits the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness… If left unchecked [it would feed users] more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.” Mark Zuckerberg responded by asking his people “not to bring something like that to him again”.)

Then they deny there’s a problem. Then they go to war with the science, refuting critical studies and producing their own. Then, they fend off public criticism – and place responsibility on the consumer – by offering targeted solutions. (At least the filter tips added to cigarettes were easy to use. Most “parental controls” on smart devices are so cumbersome and inaccessible as to be unusable.) Finally, they offer to create a system of self-regulation – by which time, Bernstein reckons, you’ve won, or you will have won, so long as you have proven that the people you’re going after intended, all along, to get their customers hooked.

[See also: The power of the platform]

Bernstein’s account of the screentime science wars is quite weak – a shallow confection built largely of single studies – and I suspect this is because she doesn’t want to set too great a store by findings that it will take at least a generation to consolidate.

In the courtroom, science isn’t everything. There are other ways to get at the truth in a timely manner; for instance, statistics, which will tell you that we have the largest ever recorded epidemic of teenage mental health problems, whose rising curves correlate with terrifying neatness with the launch of various social media platforms.

Bernstein is optimistic: “Justifying legal interventions,” she says, “is easier when the goal is to correct a loss of autonomy,” and this, after all, is the main charge she’s laying at GAMA’s door: that these companies have created devices that rob us of our will, leaving us ever more civically and psychologically inept the more we’re glued to their products.

Even better (at least from the point of view of a lawyer scenting blood), we’re talking about children. “Minors are the Achilles heel,” Bernstein announces repeatedly, and with something like glee. Remember how the image of children breathing in their parents’ second-hand smoke broke Big Tobacco? Well, just extend the analogy: here we have a playground full of kids taking free drags of Camels and Player’s No 6.

Unwired is not, and does not aspire to be, a comprehensive account of the screen-addiction phenomenon. It exists to be used: an agenda for social change through legal action. It is a knife, not a brush. But it’ll be of much more than academic value to those of us whose parenting years were overshadowed by feelings of guilt, frustration and anxiety, as we fought our hopeless battles, and lost our children to TikTok and Fortnite.

Unwired: Gaining Control Over Addictive Technologies
Gaia Bernstein
Cambridge University Press, 248pp, £20

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[See also: Is TikTok “bombarding” teenage users with harmful content?]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List