How Addictive Technology (FB, Netflix, and Co.) is Silently Killing Your Happiness, Health, and Productivity
According to a Nielsen report, the average American spends more than 11 hours every day watching, reading, listening to, or otherwise interacting with media. Most of this time is spent watching live television (4:10), followed by smartphone use (2:22), radio (1:46), tablet use (0:47), and internet use on computer (0:39).
Another statistic shows that we spend an average of 2 hours and 15 minutes on social networking sites per day. When it comes to teens – prepare to be shocked – that number comes closer to 9 hours, according to a CNN report.
Research on smartphone use shows that we check our phones up to 150 times a day, or every six to seven minutes that we’re awake. In the UK, a study showed that more than half of all adults and two-thirds of young adults and teens do not go one hour without checking their phones. According to eMarketer, total smartphone use per day will average 3 hours and 35 minutes in 2018.
As explained in a previous article, this excessive use is engineered by tech companies. We live in an attention economy, in which companies’ goal is to get users to spend as much time on their applications as possible in order to maximize ad revenue. Let me put it more bluntly: Facebook, Netflix, and co. engineer their sites to be highly addictive so that users like you and me spend as much time with them as possible.
While this deal is working out well for tech companies, flushing billions of dollars into their pockets, what do things look like on the other side, the side of users like you and me – users who can’t stop checking our phones every couple of minutes, who compulsively hop on social media, who waste hours of our time watching television shows or playing online games? What deal are we getting?
Well, a pretty shitty deal if you ask me. Not only are we wasting gigantic amounts of our time, but we also compromise everything from our attention to our productivity, social relationships, emotional well-being, and more. Consider a few recent findings associated with excessive tech use.
Attention spans, one of the most important aspects when it comes to productivity, have declined from twelve seconds in the year 2000 all the way down to eight seconds in the year 2015, as a Microsoft Corp. study found.
The constant multitasking caused by compulsive tech use has been shown to reduce productivity, increase stress, impair learning, and reduce the quality of social interactions. Long-term potential outcomes include everything from greater impulsivity to increased distractibility and mind-wandering, reduced self-control and reduced ability to delay gratification, increased depression and anxiety, and more.
The sedentariness associated with tech use is equally troubling. We’ve long known about the climbing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, but that’s just the tip of the sedentariness iceberg. Lack of movement has been shown to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, autism, heart trouble, hormone imbalances, increased appetite, delayed healing, sleep difficulties, decreased attention span, decreased metabolism, cancer, limited brain growth, damaged eyesight, early puberty, and more.
Screen time in general is associated with everything from depression, to anxiety, to less emotional stability, lower self-control, greater distractibility, reduced impulse control, lower emotional well-being, obesity, lack of exercise, and a range of other negative health outcomes.
Tech use packs a heavy blow, and our use of it is only going to rise in the future. It’s time we consider the consequences. In the remainder of this article, we’ll define addictive technology, briefly touch on what makes it so appealing to us, and then focus on seven specific ways our use of modern technology is negatively impacting our lives.
What is Addictive Technology
Let me clarify what I mean by addictive technology. I’m talking about the devices – smartphones, laptops, iPads, televisions, and co. – and the applications we use on said devices – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix, Email, instant messaging, games, etc..
The reason I refer to them as addictive is because they are. Internet addiction is real. Gaming addiction is real. Netflix addiction is real. Social media addiction is real. The difference between these behavioral addictions and drug addictions is surprisingly small. As Marc Lewis describes in The Biology of Desire, the brain changes associated with drug or behavioral addictions are more or less identical.
According to Lewis, addiction is nothing more than an extreme form of habit, "People have referred to addiction as a habit throughout recent history. That’s just what it is. It’s a nasty, often relentless habit. A serious habit. An expensive habit.”
While most of us don’t qualify as addicted tech users, we certainly are habitual users. And that’s no coincidence. Facebook, Netflix, and co. may not admit they’re engineering addictive (aka strongly habit-forming) products, but there’s enough evidence showing they are. Books and seminars exist that teach people the art of behavior design. One book is literally called, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
It might as well be called, Addicted: How to Build Addictive Products. Because that’s what the book is teaching. Not that I have anything against that book. Who doesn’t want to learn how to design their own behavior? Besides, in the right hands, I’m sure it could be used for positive habits, such as exercise or meditation. It’s just not what’s happening right now.
The Core Problem: Insanely Rewarding Experiences
Students in a 2013 experiment were told to study for 15 minutes in their home environment. Even though they were told that what they were doing was very important, they couldn’t keep on task for longer than a few minutes at a time. They somehow had to go on Facebook, respond to instant messages, or otherwise check their phone.
To understand this compulsive behavior, we need to understand that human beings are reward-seeking creatures. To the brain, rewards equal survival or replication. That’s why we love sex, sugary foods, increases in status, novel stimuli, or social approval – they are highly rewarding because, from an evolutionary standpoint, they increase our chances for survival and replication.
Understand also that random rewards are more powerful than predictable rewards. When B.F. Skinner rewarded rats with food every time they hit a lever, they only did so when they were hungry. Yet, when they received a different reward each time – a lot of food, little food, or none at all – they couldn’t stop themselves from pulling the lever over and over again. They got hooked.
That’s the double whammy of addictive technologies.
1) They provide highly rewarding experiences. Let’s say you post something on Facebook, check back after ten minutes, and see that you’ve received 50 likes. You feel a massive emotional rush. You feel socially approved. You feel good about yourself. You feel popular. You feel liked. It’s massively rewarding, and you’ll come back for more.
2) They deliver these experiences in random schedules. When you pull out your smartphone, you don’t know if you’re getting fifty new Facebook likes (big reward), one new text message (small reward), or nothing at all (no reward). Same story when you check your email inbox or scroll through your Instagram feed. You never know what you’re getting and it’s driving you crazy. You can’t stop checking in.
This is the core issue. Modern technology delivers more powerful rewards than Mother Nature ever did. “Fake” rewards make “real” rewards look like a joke. The brain’s reasoning goes something like this, “Sure, I’ll get a small reward after going for a 30-minute run, but I’ll have to work for it. Why not hop on social media, get bigger rewards, and get them instantly and without putting in any work?” To the brain, there’s no difference between fake and real rewards. It’s all the same, so it will just go for the bigger reward. And voilà, we forego long-term health/success behaviors for short-term gratification – and we’re paying the price, as you’re about to see for yourself.
7 Ways Addictive Technology is Wreaking Havoc in Your Life
You know what addictive technology is and how it’s getting us hooked, and you know we’re spending insane amounts of time with this technology. Now, let’s talk about the specific ways this excessive use is harming you.
1. Robbing Your Time
Let’s begin with the most glaringly obvious tragedy excessive tech use has on our lives – the gigantic waste and misuse of time. Think about all the marvelous things you could do instead of frittering away in front of some device. You could learn a new language, learn to play chess or bridge, learn to knit, draw, paint, play ping-pong, meditate, cook, or dance. You could meet new friends, have sex, play with your nephews, or read a book. You could join a yoga class. You could travel the world, explore new cultures, go on epic adventures.
But you fail to step back and analyze what you’re really doing with your life, and when confronted, you exclaim, “I just don’t have the time!” As Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
Nobody will wish at their deathbed that they had spent more time watching television, browsing through their social media feeds, or playing Candy Crush. Try it. Imagine lying in your deathbed right now and ask yourself, “How could I have better spent my time?” Then, go about following your own advice.
2. Attractive Distractions = More Procrastination
There’s a direct link between the attractiveness of distractions and procrastination. In his book, The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Piers Steel cites research showing we’ve seen a 5-fold increase in procrastination over the last couple of decades. The reason? Addictive technology.
He explains that “proximity to temptation is one of the deadliest determinants of procrastination. [And] the more enticing the distraction, the less work we do.” The relationship between distractions and procrastination is illustrated in the following graph:
The dashed horizontal lines represent temptations, the lower one being a smaller temptation and the higher one being a bigger temptation. The solid line that eventually swoops up is the work curve, showing that most of our motivation is reserved until just before the deadline. The closer the deadline comes, the higher our motivation to work on the task becomes. Once our motivation for work is higher than our motivation for temptations, we start working and stop procrastinating.
As you can see from the graph, the more attractive a temptation becomes, the higher the dashed bar moves and the longer it takes for the competing work line to become the preferable choice. In other words, the more attractive the temptation, the longer we procrastinate. Dr. Piers Steel sums it up perfectly, “So, we can see that when the allure of temptation rises, so does procrastination.”
That’s precisely what’s happening today. Addictive technology, by providing more and more attractive temptations, creates insane levels of procrastination. We want to live healthier, go after our dreams, and live our best lives, but we postpone by giving in to watching another episode of Westworld instead.
3. Distractibility and Impulsivity Up; Deep Thinking and Patience Down
In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr brilliantly describes how modern technology is changing our brains. “The tools we use to write, read, and otherwise manipulate information,” he writes, “work on our minds even as our minds work with them.” As we use technology, that technology works on us, changing how we process information, how we focus, how we interpret, how we think.
Through the process of neuroplasticity, these changes get hardwired into the very structures of our brains. Skills we use frequently get strengthened; unused skills get weakened. The skills modern technology strengthens in the brain include cursory reading, hurried, distracted, shallow thinking, superficial learning, impulsive decision-making, and multitasking. The skills that get weakened include deep reading and learning, calm, clear, concentrated, and deliberate thinking, conscious decision-making, and single-tasking.
Put differently, addictive technology is permanently re-wiring our brains to make us more distracted and impulsive, while killing our abilities to concentrate and think deeply.
4. Multitasking Takes a Toll on Productivity, Memory, Health, and Happiness
The insane pull of addictive apps means we’ve essentially lost our ability to single-task for any serious amount of time. When we’re working at our computers, we have to check email every couple of minutes. When we’re studying, we have to check our phones. When we’re watching television, we use a second device at the same time.
This constant multitasking has both immediate as well as long-term effects. The immediate ones include lowered productivity, greater stress, impaired learning, and reduced quality of social interactions. The long-term effects aren’t clear yet, but they might include everything from greater impulsivity to increased distractibility and mind-wandering, reduced self-control and reduced ability to delay gratification, increased depression and anxiety, and more.
5. Sedentariness is Stealing Your Energy, Drive, and Literally Years from Your Life
According to researcher Dr. Aric Sigman, watching TV contributes to a wide range of health outcomes, including obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, heart trouble, hormone imbalances, increased appetite, delayed healing, sleep difficulties, decreased attention span, decreased metabolism, cancer, limited brain growth, damaged eyesight, early puberty, and diabetes. He calls watching television “the greatest health scandal of our time.”
It comes as no surprise that recent studies have found links between watching television and premature death. The more you watch, the more it reduces your lifespan. Once you’re over 25, it’s been estimated that every hour of television you watch reduces your life expectancy by approximately 22 minutes.
The main reason for these health implications is the sedentariness associated with watching television. When you spend hours in front of your devices, you’re in a seated position most of the time, and that’s unhealthy. While we can’t go into details here, know that there’s ample proof showing that sitting makes you sick, fat, and, by depriving your brain of oxygen and other nutrients, dumb. There’s a reason why people call sitting the new smoking.
6. The Mere Presence of Technology is Harming You
A 2012 study examined the effects of having a phone present during an interpersonal social setting. In two face-to-face studies, researchers had strangers have either a casual conversation or discussing meaningful personal matters. In one condition, a mobile phone – not belonging to any of the participants – was placed on a nearby table within full view but not in direct line of sight of either one. In a control condition, no phone was present. The results showed that the mere presence of the phone inhibited the development of interpersonal trust and closeness, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners. These results have been replicated in multiple studies now and are referred to as “the iPhone effect.”
A 2014 study investigated something similar. Researchers asked college students to complete a series of complex tasks when their silenced phones were visible. The results showed they performed significantly worse than a control group whose phones were not visible. Things got even more interesting when all the participants’ phones were removed but the experimenter’s phone remained present. Sure enough, just like iPhone effect studies would predict, even when the visible phone wasn’t their own, study participants’ performance suffered.
And these are just two kinds of studies investigating the negative effects of tech presence. In general, research shows proximity to tech influences everything from how powerful, assertive, and confident you feel, to how anxious you are, to how well you are able to concentrate, and how much you enjoy social interactions.
7. FOMO, Phantom Vibrations, Facebook Envy, Stress – Emotional Well-Being is Taking a Hit
Modern technology gave rise to a variety of new health problems: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), phantom vibrations, Facebook depression, Facebocrastination, Facebook envy, nomophobia, and more.
Excessive use of technology is undoubtedly having an influence on our emotional well-being. The more we check email, for example, the higher our stress levels tend to be. For every hour of TV we watch over the age of 25, our life expectancy decreases by 22 minutes. Social media use is associated with more negative health outcomes than one can count, including, of course, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and envy.
A recent study, published in December 2018, examined screen time of 2- to 17-year-old children and adolescents in the U.S (including phones, computers, electronic devices, electronic games, and television) and its impact on an array of psychological well-being measures. It found ,“After 1 h/day of use, more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.”
“Among 14- to 17-year-olds, high users of screens (7+ h/day vs. low users of 1 h/day) were more than twice as likely to ever have been diagnosed with depression, ever diagnosed with anxiety, treated by a mental health professional or have taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue in the last 12 months. Moderate use of screens (4 h/day) was also associated with lower psychological well-being. Non-users and low users of screens generally did not differ in well-being. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being were larger among adolescents than younger children.”
Making Sense of this Mountain of Evidence
Before you throw your phone at the wall and declare war against technology, understand that most of this research is at the stage of correlation, not causation. We do not yet know the exact consequences of excessive tech use. Is it as bad as the evidence in this article made it look? We don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that we ought to be careful. Careful about our own use of technology and our children’s use. There’s a reason why tech giants follow Steve Jobs’ rule of limiting “how much technology our kids use in the home.”
How to Break Free?
What if you’re alarmed by the possible implications of tech use? What if you want to reduce your screen time? What if you want your life back?
The most important step is to become aware of what’s happening. Pay attention to how much time you’re really spending on your devices. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Pay attention to your compulsions. Stop running on autopilot. Become aware. See what’s happening. Only then can you change anything.
Time management is perhaps more important than ever. If you don’t take control of your time, you’ll spend it in front of your devices, exposing yourself to the hazards of multitasking, sedentariness, and distractibility. Plan your mornings, weekends, weekday evenings. Be more proactive; less reactive.
Setting up your environment is another crucial element. Make addictive apps as hardly accessible as possible. Delete them from your phone. Block distracting websites. Disable notifications and alerts. Remove shortcuts from your browser, taskbar, new tabs, and home screens. Move technology out of sight. Put the phone in drawers. Use airplane mode. Get a travel alarm clock.
Pulling yourself away from technology isn’t easy. It takes discipline and patience – as do most worthwhile endeavors in life. Don’t be afraid of putting in effort. Embrace the challenge. Strive for a better future.
For more tips on handling addictive technology, check out this article.
Addictive Technology Article Series
This was the second of three articles on addictive technology. Check out the full series below:
- The Rise of Addictive Technology: How FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Co. Get Us Addicted to Their Apps – Explains how tech companies exploit human psychology to make their platforms as addictive as possible.
- (You're reading this right now) Why Addictive Technology is Silently Ruining Your Health, Happiness, and Productivity – Explores all the negative consequences of excessive tech use.
- How to Break Free from Tech Addiction: 16 Strategies to Reclaim Your Life and Stop Wasting Your Time on FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Co. – Gives you the tools to end your tech addiction and use your time more wisely.
And don’t forget our articles on email management, watching television, and smartphone productivity.