The Paradox Of Smartphone Addiction

There have been multiple articles warning about the dangers of tech addiction, from publications like The Washington Post and The Atlantic, that note that smartphone addiction has resulted in higher rates of depression and suicide among teenagers. There have also been alarming behavioral shifts. Children and teenagers these days seem to be less interested in driving or managing money, adulthood continues to be postponed.

The author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products wrote a short response.

He referred to a legal measure that was taken to control how certain tech products could be designed.

Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act, which — beyond its forced acronym — was remarkable for how aggressively it would regulate the design of certain tech products.

“Tech Addiction” Is the New Reefer Madness, Nir Eyal

According to Eyal, the outrage against tech addiction is akin to the Reefer Madness that overtook the US decades ago. Eyal notes that all people need to do is mute the notifications on their phones, and they will stop getting distracted.

The problem, as he sees it, is not that people are becoming addicted to smartphones, but that they are constantly allowing themselves to be distracted.

Who’s right?

First, the postponement of childhood is an observation one writer made after observing generational shifts in behavior for decades. But the problem is that these trends don’t tell us the whole story. For example, if you want to get a good idea of where adulthood is not postponed at all — that is, children are forced to become adults at a much younger age — it’s usually in poor countries. There, children make the jump to adulthood earlier rather than later because they have no choice. If they didn’t become adults, they would starve to death.

If there happens to be a society where children are not compelled to become adults, that’s usually a good sign.

The romanticization of a past era when children “wanted” to drive and to take on financial responsibilities is nostalgic sentiment, but not one based in truth. Children do not “want” to do these things, but if everyone around them was doing them, they can convince themselves that it is what they want to do as well — an important psychological trick that helps them cope with a more harsh reality.

It is silly to reduce smartphone addiction to a matter of mere distraction. As Tristan Harris put it, there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen spending all their working hours trying to figure out how to get you addicted. Hardly a fair fight. And if you are in the least bit realistic about your psychological frailties, you would understand how easy it is for media and technology to manipulate your thoughts and behaviors.

It is not only that people are subject to manipulation and control, but the technologies themselves follow principles that have been studied and perfected for over a century, ever since Watson founded the behaviorist school in psychology in the early 20th century. In other words, it’s a perfect a storm, with three disasters.

  1. Business models on the internet (based on advertising) that incentivize maintaining user attention at any cost.
  2. Artificial intelligence informed by decades of research into the psychology of manipulation.
  3. A distracted human mind that is frail and confused.

The problem is that as time passes, things only get worse. The mind becomes more distracted, technology becomes more advanced, and business models that have survived become more pervasive and powerful.

Business Models

Many well-meaning critics have called for changing the advertising model into something else. The idea is that if there were different economic incentives, there would be different outcomes. The problem with that is that the online advertising industry doesn’t work that way. Much like technology, business models are not built on ethical principles. Companies like Alphabet (Google) and Meta (Facebook) will always do what makes economic sense.

And these companies are the engines behind the online advertising industry which is a high-speed and relentless marketplace that doesn’t have time to meditate on its behavior. Like the stock market, it must keep going, or the whole thing collapses.

Change is possible, but only in format, and not in form.

Online advertising is constantly changing but the basic model is the same. You can only make money online by attracting attention. And with the currency of attention, you can advertise your own products or the products of someone else.

The format will constantly evolve — videos and audio may replace text, and invasive ads may be replaced with subtle ads but the game will be a race for attention.

Artificial Intelligence

Shifts in behavior among the youth have always been a problem to every generation.

“[Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances.”

Rhetoric, Aristotle, 4th Century BC

“The beardless youth… does not foresee what is useful, squandering his money.”

— Horace, 1st Century BC

As long as civilizations have existed, the older generation bemoans the foolishness of the younger generation. Knowing this, it is stupid to say that “this time is different.” But at the same time, it is stupid to say that “times will never be different.”

The speed at which civilization has progressed technologically in previous centuries is incomparable to the speed at which civilization progresses today.

Much of the wisdom from the past can be retained, but it is a mistake to treat a world in which the human being has outsourced so much decision making to algorithms as identical or even similar to a world in which people were isolated from each other. The hyper-connected world of today means that it is not only the village elder or your grandmother that you receive advice and wisdom from, but the entire history of civilization, past and present.

And clearly, this is a great gift. The dark side of this tradeoff, however, is that this individual is also a target of incessant advertising and predatory tracking by companies with a business model that depends on the methodical exploitation of the brain.

People who understand the technology are the ones who know how dangerous it is. Steve Jobs knew the dangers of extender hours on the screen. Apparently, he limited the amount of time he allowed his children to use the very products he helped bring into the world. The legendary rapper, Notorious B.I.G summed it up best in his song, Ten Crack Commandments, when he said, “Number 4, I know you heard this before. Never get high on your own supply.”

A fundamental feature of any new technology is that it does not care about your well-being. That is not how the economic system works. The products that sell are the ones that are highly demanded (for whatever reason, including addiction). There is so much public outrage and shock at how companies made money by preying on people’s psychology, you would think these people lived in a different world where businesses established monopolies by being good stewards of the earth. As is so often the case, people look for morality in the wrong places.

A Distracted Mind

Whereas previous generations suffered from bouts of intense boredom, the current generation is never bored. In fact, one of the undeniable accomplishments of technology in our era is that it has become impossible to be bored. Whether it’s watching, listening, playing, chatting, posting, or scrolling — you would need to make an effort to avoid being entertained.

This is truly a remarkable feat. But again, one that has brought with it a subtle and dangerous trade-off. When the mind is bored, it wanders, it reflects, it thinks, and it feels. That’s generally a good thing. It is through boredom that we can go outside of our routine, correct our mistakes, and redirect our lives. That gap, the space between our actions, is essential to functioning well. It is what the Taoists have long known, but what many seem to be totally ignorant about.

Many decades ago, dictators understood that a distracted mind is weak and vulnerable to propaganda. In fact, if you want to brainwash people, you would do everything in your power to prevent them from thinking in silence. The best way to exert control is to keep people plugged in and “connected.” The advertising industry were not the inventors of distraction, they are late adopters.

Intuitively, we think that living boredom-free is a good thing. More excitement means more pleasure, and therefore, more happiness. The visionary Huxley in Brave New World (1931) so accurately encapsulated the predicament of the future when he vividly wrote about a world in which the majority of human beings would willingly subject themselves to brainwashing not because they were being restrained against their own will, but out of their own free choice. Comfort was more desirable than struggle, pleasure was more desirable than pain. An existence of perfect bliss was available to them, and they took it — at the expense of being human.

The Paradox

But technology has become so central to how we live (convenience), and staring at screens is often the only way we can work, connect with friends, and read the news. How can we avoid it? How much “freedom” would we gain by doing so?

And herein lies the paradox.

Throwing your smartphone away is not a good idea, because you do need it. But allowing yourself to become wholly or even partially controlled by technologies that force you to become addicted to them is not a good idea either.

The only reasonable compromise is a form of self-discipline, where the technology itself is treated like anything that is harmful in excess. But the problem is that if such a solution exists, it is only available to a minority of idealistic individuals who have an exceptional amount of willpower.

But as the digital world continues to grow, these individuals will become obsolete, since they are out of the new economic system.

There is no clear solution, hence the paradox.

Unfortunately, it does not occur to most people that guarding their time against a world that is competing for their attention is an important thing to do.

In Sapiens, Harari summarized our predicament in a crude but truthful way. He said that the state of the modern digital economy has left us with two choices. One is to simply enjoy the ride and allow the algorithms to steer us in any direction it desires — including the information we consume, the products we buy, and even the relationships we pursue. The second option is to understand yourself faster than algorithms can.

If you are willing to put up a fight. Then you can begin by building better habits that create a healthy distance between yourself and screen. Some books such as Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit can help you do that.

And if you want to understand yourself better, on a deeper level, then read The Dichotomy of the Self, a short book that explores the best philosophical and psychological ideas about human nature, in a way that is easy to understand but not simplistic.

Further Reading

Originally published at

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