Technology is increasingly present in our lives. Part of that spread reflects the embedding of technology in daily life, whether it’s integrating digital circuitry into once “dumb” objects or our reliance on communications devices. There is, however, another more disturbing reason for that presence: addiction. Research shows that technology — and the cellphone in particular — has an increasingly powerful pull and exhibits increasingly worrisome effects on human behavior.
This concern is not new. Researchers have for years warned of the troubling side effects of technology: sleeplessness, depression, shortened attention spans and antisocial behavior. This problem has assumed new attention after two major investors in Apple — New York-based Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), which together control $2 billion of Apple stock — released an open letter calling on the firm to do more to fight technology addiction. The letter cited the “developing consensus around the world … that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility to an app designer. …”
Apple replied that it cares deeply “about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them.” It should and it must, as should other hardware designers and app developers.
The addiction problem stems from two powerful forces, one physiological and one sociological. Researchers have recognized that “good” software design triggers the production of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for carrying messages involved in reward-motivated behavior. “Good” design creates anticipation of a reward.
As Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, has explained, certain apps “trigger (a)whole set of sensations and thoughts.” The manipulation can even be as simple as using certain colors and fonts to stimulate engagement. Red and bright blue subconsciously encourage users to reach for phones. Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook executive calls the “likes” function “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” — a revealing sentiment from the man credited with creating the Like button.
The ability to manipulate human physiology is encouraged by a different form of “dopamine”: capitalism. One investor with significant holdings in coffee retailers, casinos and alcohol manufacturers was blunt: “We invest in things that are addictive,” adding that “addictive things are very profitable.” The result is increasingly disturbing behavior. High internet use adversely affects frontal lobe and brainstem functions, and delays cognitive development. Young students who are heavy users of social media have a 27 percent higher risk of depression, while the spread of smartphones has been linked to a 22 percent jump in the number of teens in the United States who reported sleeping less than seven hours; sleep deprivation is linked to poor performance at school, obesity, and depression and anxiety.
One sign of mounting concern is the World Health Organization’s decision to classify video game addiction as an official mental health condition. The WHO has concluded that gaming disorders are “characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior,” including “not feeling like you have control over how much you play.” This behavior “is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
Japan, along with countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea, officially recognizes tech addiction as a disorder. According to one survey, high school girls in Japan spend an average of seven hours a day on their mobile phones; nearly 10 percent spend at least 15 hours. Boys of the same age average just over four hours of mobile phone use daily. A 2013 government survey showed that 60 percent of Japanese high school students showed strong signs of digital addiction, with as many as 8.1 percent of junior high and high school students suffering from internet addiction and its associated problems.
Fortunately, there are cures. One of the “easiest” is a “fasting camp” where children are forced into technology-free environments. Research shows that taking away devices has helped children develop empathy.
Such remedies treat the symptoms, not the disease, and that is why companies like Apple must step up their efforts to minimize the damage from technology. The investor letter urged Apple to set up an expert committee with child development specialists and others, and then ensure its work is widely disseminated. Another option is giving parents more control over their children’s devices through adjustments to operating systems and apps. These are tentative first steps. But as in all addictions, the most important step is recognizing there is a problem. Without that, there can be no solution.
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