Is Resistance Futile?

As we become increasingly dependent on our devices, a new book by Stern professor Adam Alter examines the addictiveness of technology.
illustration: repeating image of man holding cell phone while his brain is removed from his head
© Joey Klarenbeek

The straight-A student whose five-week World of Warcraft binge costs him his spot at a prestigious university. The Fitbit-trained runner who suffers repeated stress fractures in the quest to meet an escalating quota of daily steps. The high-level executive who collapses after working a string of 19-hour days.

Sound like anyone you know? These scenarios might seem extreme, but they’re becoming increasingly common as we spend more of our lives tethered to screens, NYU Stern associate professor of marketing Adam Alter warns in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (Penguin Press). Whereas in the past the term “addiction” was reserved for those struggling with substance abuse, Alter expands the definition, arguing that many digital experiences are engineered to create psychological effects similar to those of drugs—and can be seriously detrimental to our well-being over time.

Between online shopping, Snapchat, Netflix, email, and the ever-present Candy Crush, such temptations are everywhere, with a whopping 41 percent of us harboring at least one behavioral addiction and the average smartphone user spending three hours a day on the device, studies show. And because it’s viewed as normal (if not essential!) to carry the internet with us wherever we go—the average office email is opened within a mere six seconds of being sent—quitting cold turkey is rarely an option. While individual therapists and rehabilitation centers have begun to offer treatment for those who cannot seem to disconnect, society as a whole has yet to face the issue head on.

NYU News recently talked with Alter about some common-sense personal technology ground rules as well as his hopes for a future for better consumer protections against technologies designed to prey upon our natural appetites.

illustration: child holding video game controller in front of a TV

So many of us wish to use our devices less. Short of checking in to rehab, do you have any practical tips?
  1. Become a behavioral architect. Just as an architect would design a building or city, you must arrange your space in ways that discourage the use of these devices. An example of this is deciding that every time you eat dinner, no matter who you’re with, you’ll put your phone in another room, and ideally ask others to do the same.
  2. Carve out a period of the day that’s sacred, whether it’s because you spend it outdoors or because you have a face-to-face conversation with a friend. You want to make it automatic, so you don’t have to make a conscious decision every day. Those decisions are hard. Instead, having a firm rule in place helps remove all the barriers to doing the right thing.
  3. A lot of us allow our phones to beep and ding and tell us when they want us to check them. We give up a lot of our control to them in a way that we would never do with another person. Imagine if someone said you had to be available and pay attention to them 24 hours a day—that’s ridiculous! So spend a half hour learning about your phone’s settings. See which sounds and vibrations you can do without. Experiment for a while. For a week, turn off all email notifications and see what happens. Do you miss out on really important things? Do the same with text messages. Is it the end of the world if you check them twice a day instead of every 10 seconds? I think a lot of people could be notified less than they are now and be happier for it. 
Most of us wouldn’t say that checking our email gives us a “high” like a drug, but we still can’t resist doing it. Where’s the reward in that cycle? 

One of the biggest developments in our understanding of addiction in recent decades is that it’s not necessarily about reward. We used to think that you liked things that you’re addicted to—that the feeling the drug gives you is so wonderful that it overcomes any negative consequences. But when you look at the way the brain operates, addiction is not so much about liking as it is about wanting. Over time, you develop a very strong want for something even if you stop liking it. That’s very often true of the anxiety reduction that comes from doing something compulsively, like checking social media or email over and over again to avoid missing something really important. That “FOMO” experience is aversive but it’s totally consistent with our understanding of addiction—it’s about wanting to do something really badly, whether or not you like it or it makes you feel good. 

illustration: smartphone with charger plugged into a person's back

You write about an interest among some ethically minded designers in creating games that aren’t so addictive. Can you see that becoming a trend?

The big game companies, like all companies, have one major goal: to make lots of money. That’s never going to change. I think there are only two forces that could push game designers to be more ethical in their practices. One of them is regulation. In France now if you have more than 50 people in your company, you are forced to draw up a charter to protect your employees from email, by, say, having a server not release messages between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. That sort of legislation could extend to game designers as well. Certain in-app or in-game purchases might be outlawed, or maybe it would be mandatory to build stopping cues into the game.

illustration: limbs reaching out of a smartphone to grab a tiny person

The other way would be if consumers started demanding of companies that they behave, in the way that has started to happen with the green movement. If people see a company doing something they really don’t like with respect to the environment, they’ll go to a different company. But one of the problems in the game world is that you often don’t have an alternative. If you really like a game you keep playing that game, and no other game is a true substitute.  

It’s telling that many tech industry leaders—most famously Steve Jobs—have been known to prohibit their kids from using certain devices. Are you doing the same?

Once, when my son was a few months old, I was holding my phone and he leaned over and swiped the screen. The pictures changed and he was just delighted. It was like the greatest moment of his young life. I was worried by that idea that he got such a strong reward from that interaction. It was like eat-ing sugar—you’re always going to get that same burst of positive feeling. That was when I decided that we really have to be firm about this. My wife and I made a conscious decision that until he was 2 we wouldn’t expose him to any screens of any kind. I don’t use the phone around him, and he’s never seen the TV. He’s 18 months old now, and so far it’s been good. But when he’s 2 my daughter will be 6 months old, so it’s going to be nearly impossible to prevent her from seeing the screens that he’s watch-ing. I’m not sure how we’ll manage that.