How much does social media control your daily activities?
Original Source: thequint.com
I have a deep interest in addiction. I was a professional poker player for a few years, and noticed that many of the people around me were addicted to poker. I played the game with regard to math and game theory, but others were chasing dopamine rushes. I felt, after a while, that I was exploiting their addiction. I tried to make interventions in the case of a couple of people I became close to, and they agreed with my analysis on a rational level, but remained slaves to their impulses.
Eventually, I saved up enough to quit the game and get back to writing. But I worried, What if, despite my scientific approach to the game and my winning record, I also happen to be addicted? To my relief, I felt no craving to play poker once I quit. But I did need the dopamine. I would sometimes play online chess all day. And I would spend far more time on social media than I should have.
There is no dopamine rush stronger than that of the next notification.
Does that sound familiar to you? If so, you might be a citizen of the fourth-largest country in the world, after China, India and the USA. That’s the United State of Nomophobia. ‘Nomophobia’ is a term that broadly means smartphone addiction, and this notional country is invoked by Adam Alter in his excellent book, Irresistible.
The conventional view of addiction involves substances like cocaine or alcohol or nicotine – but one does not get addicted to substances alone. Irresistible is a book about ‘behavioural addiction’, and details the various mechanisms of such addiction, with suggestions of how to mitigate them. It also begins by describing the extent of such addiction – and the statistics are frightening.
“Most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day,” Alter writes, “and many far longer.” One study found that its subjects spent “an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones – more time than any other daily activity, except sleeping.” Over a lifetime, this amounts to eleven years that you spend on your smartphone. (We tend to underestimate the amount of time we spend on our smartphones, so I’d recommend you download an app called Moment that tracks your smartphone usage. The results will surprise you.)
It’s not just the time that you spend on your smartphone that is disturbing. It is also the impact it has on your attention. On average, we tend to pick up our smart phones three times every hour.
Each distraction is costly, as estimates suggest that once we’re distracted from a task we’re working on, it takes us 25 minutes to re-enter that state of focused work.
College students check Facebook accounts on smartphone devices in Mumbai, India(Photo Courtesy: Kainaz Amaria/Bloomberg)
The constant distractions around us, and the addictions that weaponize them, ensure that we can never enter a state of sustained focus. That affects our productivity, as well as the quality of our work.
An important thing to note about such addiction is that it is not a defect of character. It is not a weakness of willpower but the wiring of our brains that causes and sustains addiction. The mechanics of both substance addiction and behaviour addiction are identical: the same regions of the brain are involved, and the same chemicals cause our cravings. One illustration of the biological basis of addiction came from an experiment carried out by the psychologist James Olds and the engineer Peter Milner.
Olds and Milner made their discovery after a blunder on their part. The experiment involved giving electric shocks to rats, through probes inserted in their brains that would release a current when the rat pressed a metal bar. They expected the rats to recoil and scamper away, which all but one rat did. The famous Rat No. 34 kept pressing the bar again and again. He did this repeatedly for 12 hours, ignoring other positive inducements, and then died of exhaustion.
Olds “removed the probe from the rat’s brain and noticed that it was bent.” All the other probes delivered the current into the rat’s mid-brain, but this probe was flawed, and the current went into Rat No. 34’s septum – which Olds called the “pleasure center” of the brain. Humans also have this “pleasure center.” Alter writes:
Altering the chemical balance of the brain can have a similar result. Alter writes about Andrew Lawrence, a professor of neuroscience at Cardiff University, who noticed a range of unexpected addictive behaviours among people who had Parkinson’s Disease. As Lawrence told Alter, “Parkinson’s results from a dopamine deficit, so we treat the disease with drugs that replace dopamine.” Dopamine, of course, is the key chemical involved in addictive behaviour. Lawrence published a review paper in 2004 that contained the following story (in Alter’s words):
It wasn’t just this one man.
Other elderly patients developed sexual fetishes, and pestered their husbands and wives for sex throughout the day. One man, a lifelong fashion conformist, took to dressing up like a prostitute. Others developed addictions to Internet pornography.
That these mechanisms of addiction exist in all of us is just part of the problem. Every addiction benefits a supplier somewhere, and there is now a science to getting people hooked onto a poison of choice, and keeping them hooked. Alter compresses a significant part of his book into one paragraph when he writes:
Alter explains and illustrates each of these ingredients, with examples of how companies, sometimes unwittingly, use one or a few of them to fuel addictive behaviour. (As you might expect, Tetris comes up as an example of a game designed to be addictive. So do slot machines. So does Netflix’s ‘post-play’ feature, that promotes binge watching.) Blaming these suppliers, though, would miss the point: those who design a user-experience can hardly be blamed for wanting to make the experience as pleasurable and habit-forming as they can. The onus has to be on those of us who recognise ourselves as addicts to find a way out of our addictions.
The last section of Alter’s book is about mitigations. We cannot change the way our brains are wired, but we can reduce the probability of being addicted by controlling our ‘Behavioural Architecture’. This involves two elements: the creation of “temptation-free environments”; and measures that “blunt unavoidable temptations.” Alter writes: