Why digital devices are dope
The Times of India, 2 June 2018
Can’t stop checking in? Tech is designed to distract you and sap your will. TOI kicks off a series on digital wellness to help you log off
It's now a familiar sight at most dinner tables - every member of the party texting or reading, lost in a digital world instead of having real-world conversations. Staring at the screen isn't just rude, it stops you from savouring the meal. And constantly checking your smartphone isn't just distracting, it could actually have an effect on your health, both mental and physical.
Most Indians are tied to their screens though they probably don't see the extent of their dependence. About 45 per cent of respondents to a recent survey by TOI said they spent more than four hours a day on their phones. If you take away seven hours of sleep and seven hours at a job, that's almost 40 per cent of your free time spent on a phone. As many as 76 per cent say their phone is the last thing they check just before they go to bed. It's also the first thing 53 per cent of respondents look at in the morning, even before they use the toilet or brush their teeth. Close to 55,000 readers participated in the TOI survey conducted online.
While it's FOMO (fear of missing out) that has some people constantly checking their phones, for others it's that little jolt of happiness from a like or comment that feeds into a sense of well-being and keeps people coming back for more. It's what former Google designer and ethicist Tristan Harris describes as a slot machine that you keep playing to see what prize - or number of likes - you can win.
Anxieties over technology's impact on society are as old as technology itself - from video games and TV to radio and even novels, all advances were seen as harbingers of humanity's demise. But apprehensions about smartphones are coupled with apps and algorithms that collect data, predict behaviour and infringe on privacy. And that has turned behavioural experiments into conversations about digital wellness.
Dr Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and author of 'The Distracted Mind' and 'iDisorder', describes dependence on technology as an obsession rather than an addiction. "With our extensive commitments to our smartphones and our connections to the world through that phone, we check in with our virtual world, and then our adrenal gland starts secreting cortisol (among other chemicals), which makes us feel uneasy that we have not checked in recently," he explains. It reaches a point of obsession where we must check in to remove those chemicals - that also explains the phantom ring you hear, swiping every few minutes to check if you've got a message, or patting a pocket quickly to check that your phone is still there.
Addiction, on the other hand, is about the brain feeding you chemicals that give you pleasure whenever someone likes or comments on a post. "Over time, you need more of those chemicals to feel the same pleasure, so you have to do more of the addictive activity," says Rosen. Signs of addiction include ignoring work, school, family and friends, lying about excessive use, and needing more and more to gain the same excitement.
Whether one uses the term addiction or obsession, it's clear that phones are a distraction. A study published last June by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that people who had their smartphones nearby - even on silent - performed significantly worse in tests of cognitive capacity than those whose phones were in another room. In other words, if your phone is nearby, you can't stop thinking about it.
Fighting the dependence may be a lot harder because addiction is hardwired into device design. Last November, Facebook's founding president Sean Parker said they'd aimed to create something addictive, "a social validation feedback loop" that exploited "a vulnerability in human psychology", from the outset. A month later, former Facebooker Chamath Palihapitiya told an audience at Stanford, "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we've created are destroying how society works."
It's because device makers have had an attack of conscience that they're speaking the language of digital wellness too. Early this year, Apple's investors asked the company to study the health effects of its products and help children cut screen time. Android recently announced a suite of features to make a phone less addictive-a dashboard to log screen time, a timer to clock your use of apps, a wind down mode that switches your phone to greyscale at bedtime.
But experts don't recommend using technology to fight technology. "We don't really know how effective such tools are," says Michael Robb, director of research, Common Sense, a US non-profit that works on balanced technology use. Further, focusing only on the amount of time online is tricky given that children and adults are connected all the time and that most activities now take place in online environments.
Instead, weaning yourself off and reducing obsessive behaviour is the way to deal with it. Rosen's solutions are simple, and include checking in with your phone and virtual worlds on a time schedule, say hourly and not every time you get an urge or an alert. He also suggests turning off all alerts and notifications and moving social media icons to a back screen so they cannot be reached as easily.
"There's no magic formula, but we suggest that instead of counting daily screen-time minutes, aim for a balance through the week," says Robb. It's time to think of JOMO (joy of missing out).