Sunday, February 18, 2018

Brain Candy - Can We Break Our Smartphone Addiction?

Definitely worth a read. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge and former Blackberry CEO Jim Balsillie kick around the growing problem of smartphone addiction. It may be a far worse problem than you imagine. Here's part of the discussion.


Simply put, the chemistry and the wiring of the brain can be manipulated. There are all sorts of behavioural addictions – gambling, online porn, shopping – sthat take hold because they trigger the same areas of the brain as drugs. People are unsuspecting of digital addiction. That's because each addiction – cocaine, heroin, alcohol, video games – has a slightly different form and effect, so it takes a while to recognize any new addiction as such.


I recently experienced something fascinating that made me see smartphone addiction in a different light: I attended a dinner that included a young teenager. He was constantly engaging with his smartphone. His parents saw that it was poor table manners, so they took it away. The teenager then started to fidget. His eyes darted everywhere. He couldn't calm down and was visibly uncomfortable for the next 45 minutes. I could see the kid was in pain and was manifesting it physically. I know there is always moral panic about technology, but this incident told me that, in the case of smartphones, it might be coming too late. Seeing this kid suffer and not say a word to anyone stayed with me. People now spend on average more than 10 hours a day on their screens. This is no longer an attention economy, but an addiction economy.


Digital tech is especially good at changing our brains without our awareness. The brain is neuroplastic, meaning it has a property that allows it to change its structure and function in response to mental experience. Digital technologies are uniquely "compatible" with the brain, because both are electric and also work at high speeds. Marshall McLuhan figured this out. He argued that all media extend us – the microphone extends the voice, the radio the ear, the computer the brain's processing power. In 1969, he said, "Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull, and his nerves outside his skin." At the time it seemed like one of his more bizarre aphorisms. Few believed the brain was plastic and that the media could work by, in some way, connecting to and rewiring our neurons.


Are you saying that by using screens 10 hours a day we are, by definition, addicted?


For some, "addiction" is just a metaphor meaning "too dependent on" or "a compulsion." But for many, it is literally true, and they show all the signs of addiction: compulsivity, loss of control of the activity, craving, psychological dependence, using even when harmful. Everywhere we see people who mustcheck their phones every few moments – according to Adam Alter's book Irresistible, the average office e-mail goes unanswered for only six seconds. That's compulsive! They check while driving – that's harmful – and feel agitation when they can't. They stay up late, stuck on their computers, and then can't sleep. In online-porn addictions, people develop tolerance and need ever more stimulation for excitement, and start to crave the porn, without liking it, and feel withdrawal when they try to stop. Addicts always underestimate the time spent on the activity because they're under a spell. If you think of addiction, only in quantitative terms, you worry about, "Am I spending too much time online?" But our brain is sculpted by whatever we do repeatedly, and 10 hours a day also drives huge qualitative changes. The most important factor in any technology is what they do to our brains. In this case, it's plummeting attention spans, patience, memories or how social media is creating insecurity. So there are significant mental-health issues involved.


zoombats in Hong Kong said...

Pretty interesting that Jimbo would only now notice the problem. I say bullocks to that. You don't become wealthy by missing an opportunity to unload shit on a consumer based group like the teenager described. Cell phone use is a disease that is a global problem. I ride the MTR in Hong Kong and I see it everyday day. Imagine for a second living in a place with a population of Honkers trying to navigate the sidewalks behind mindless people of all ages blankly staring at the devices. It brings new meaning to the concept of being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.

crf said...

Blackberry was exclusively about people being constantly in touch with their email. I guess you could say that the screen staring and texting phenomenon was pioneered on blackberry devices. This peculiar aspect of human behaviour was of no real use to blackberry, but other tech companies noticed, and it has been taken advantage of to another level with the current smart phone uses.

It's unfair to say that RIM was about selling crap to consumers: it was selling to businesses the service of secure email on the cellular network.

Owen Gray said...

It's interesting to note the kid's reaction when he couldn't get at his cell phone. The shorter the attention span, the less likely wise decisions will result.

The Mound of Sound said...

Research now underway appears to suggest that these devices and the way young people interact with them is indeed altering brain function. There was a writer, a fully-formed adult, who recently said he no longer could muster the attention span required to write.

I have a smart phone. I use it as a safety/communications/navigation device for my car and my motorcycle that is when I can remember where I left the damned thing before I head out. They're useful devices until you become joined at the hip.

Hugh said...

When I was a kid all we had was one of those rotary dial phones for 7 people in the house. Somehow we survived.