Author Adam Alter warns about the dangers of being hooked on electronics


BG Independent News

Writer Adam Alter believes technology has an addictive power over people. He should know. 

In his talk Monday at Bowling Green State University, Alter related his own experience with the game Flappy Bird. He was on a six-hour flight from Newark to Los Angeles. He had plans for all he would accomplish in that time. He started by playing the game. Six hours and a continent later, he was still playing the game. “I had lost all sense of the passage of time.”

Alter was on campus because his book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” was chosen as the campus’ Common Read.

It raised, said Sheila Roberts, acting vice provost of academic affairs, themes that are familiar and  “frankly a little bit uncomfortable.”

Speaking before a packed ballroom mostly of students, Alter described how people’s involvement with technology is increasingly taking over that part of our lives not devoted to work, sleep, and the other necessities of life. That free time “where all the magic happens.”

Alter said he deleted Flappy Birds, and its developer Dong Nguyen, in a fit of conscience, even had the game pulled from app stores even though it was making $75,000 a day in advertising and sales.

Alter doesn’t see Apple, Facebook, and the other tech giants as following suit. Though, he said, they seem aware of the dangers and are instituting some changes.

Alter said he was prompted to write the book after reading a profile of Apple founder Steve Jobs in The New York Times.

The reporter, Nick Bilton, commented to Jobs that his kids must love the iPad that had recently been released. Jobs replied they didn’t have one. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

In exploring further, Alter found that Jobs was not alone. His attitude about his children’s engagement with technology was typical of those in the tech industry.

This is akin, Alter said to the belief among drug dealers: “Never get high on your own supply.”

The author noted that many tech executives send their kids to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula where computers are only allowed after grade 8. Instead much of the learning happens outdoors.

Alter wondered: “What were they so concerned about?”

Young people, like the majority of those he was addressing, are more tied to technology.

A study asked people would they rather have their phone fall and shatter into a 1,000 pieces or break a bone in their hand.

About half the young people surveyed preferred to break the bone. Some asked if the injury would keep them from using their phone.

The cell phone does, he said, enable us to connect with other people. “It’s a large part of our social well being.”

And during the question period after the talk, one young man spoke about how he has friends who suffer from depression and extreme anxiety who call him for support. He feels he can never shut off his phone.

But what we have now is not what we will have in 10 years, Alter said. “In 20 years we’ll laugh at Facebook.” Already younger users are fleeing the platform.

On the horizon is virtual reality where everyone has a personal set of goggles, and a more powerful way to distance themselves from the real world.

Alter, who teaches marketing and is affiliated with the psychology department at New York University, pointed to the four drives in human nature that tech companies tap into to make their products irresistible.

The first is the elimination of stopping cues — those signs that it’s time to stop one activity and move to another.

The casino industry realized this 70 years ago, Alter said. They eliminated all time cues — no natural light and no clocks. So gamblers lost track of how much time they were spending hunched over the slot machines.

Netflix does the same when it automatically cues up the next episode of series as soon as the previous episode ends. “Binge watching didn’t exist five years ago,” Alter said. 

Reed Hastings the founder of Netflix said: “We’re really competing with sleep.”

Facebook’s endless scroll is another instance of the elimination of stopping cues.

Social media also provides the feedback users crave.

Studies on rats show that if the rats can predict that they will get a food pellet when they do a task such as hit a bar, they will do that until they are no longer hungry. But in experiments where the rewards were unpredictable, maybe no pellet, or one, or a jackpot of pellets, the rats became so involved they continued hitting the bar even after they were no longer hungry. The pellets would pile up, Alter said. Sometimes they would get so engrossed they would stop eating and drinking, and eventually die.

This unpredictability of rewards is built into social media and is one of the ways it continually draws us in. Maybe it’s the likes for an Instagram photo of someone’s lunch, or the promise of a new intriguing email.

The third drive is goal setting. Alter illustrated the power of goals, even artificial ones, with his only experience of running a marathon. He wanted to run it in under 3:30. So he set up with the pacer leading the group planning to run at that speed. But that proved unrealistic. He faded until he was with the group running at a 3:50 pace. As he was nearing the home stretch, a friend ran out and told he was on track to finish in just over four hours. This was unacceptable to Alter. He was angry. If he finished in more than four hours, he’d feel obligated to run another marathon. “That’s how I motivated himself.”

So he pushed harder and ended up under four hours. Turns out his friend had lied. Knowing Alter wanted to finish in under four hours, he told him a higher figure so Alter wouldn’t ease off, but go faster.

Then showing a graph of marathon finishing times, it  had spikes around those goal marks — four hours, 3:30, 3:15. These may be arbitrary, but they are goals nonetheless. “Artificial goals work as well as real ones,” Alter said.

 Cliffhangers are a way of setting goals — people want to know what happens, so they keep watching the next episode. “Giving part of anything, we want the other half.”

The final mechanism was social feedback and gamification. Two photo apps that allowed the manipulation of images came out around the same time about eight years ago. One Hipstagram was used to create photos that won a photojournalism award. The other, Instagram, focused on allowing users to share their images with friends and get feedback.

Instagram is worth billions now; Hipstagram is an afterthought. “It’s all about that social feedback,” Alter said.

Gamification turns something never intended to be a game into one. Frequent flyer points work this way. 

This can be used for the good, Alter said. Utilities companies tell customers how much energy they consume compared to their neighbors. If they use less they get smiley faces. Sometimes they even have leaderboards. These work, Alter said, and help people save energy.

People’s obsession with their screens, though, does not necessarily mean they need medical treatment as with substance addiction He estimated no more than 1-5 percent of users needed that kind of treatment 

But by defining addiction as “something you do compulsively in the short run, over and over again,  because it’s something you want to do because you have a strong pull toward it … despite recognizing in the long run it will undermine your well-being” he came to believe more people have a problem.

He said by that measure at least 50-60 percent of people have one or more of these issues. 

That screen time may be detrimental to someone’s social life, financial security if they spend too much on shopping sites, and physical health if they don’t exercise. It may cause them to drive recklessly.

Small changes can help. “We need to understand we’re the architects of our own environment.”

So keeping the phone at a greater distance for a few hours a day helps reduce usage. 

Often people simply use the phone as a way to allay boredom. But great ideas often spring from boredom, Alter says.

More serious is those who use them as a way of coping with depression, anxiety or extreme loneliness.

Teen drug use is down, he said, because phones are doing what the drugs did. That’s good. Still it shows power of these devices, he said.

For children the use should be limited according to age. For toddlers, an adult should present to connect what the child is seeing to the real world. For teens, the issue is balance. “Screen time is the dessert of the time world,” Alter said, and one cannot only eat dessert.

He also said there should no screen time for an hour before bed time. By looking at a screen so close to sleep, he said, “you’re inducing jet lag.” 

That screen world is very tethered to the here and now, he concluded. “We should spend some of our day … in ways that make it impossible to tell what time it is.” That could be in deep conversation, hiking, or running. “That’s how you should spend at least part of your day.”

During the questions afterward, someone asked about the use of meditation to cope with screen addiction. Alter said that could work. He uses an app to help with that.