Are smartphones and social media addictive? Tech critics say yes. But actual addiction researchers say something else — and they point to ways in which our broad use of the word “addiction” can cause real harm. In this episode, we look at the history of supposedly “addictive” technologies, understand the surprisingly odd science behind today’s scariest claims, and discover who really has the power to break these supposed “addictions.” (Hint: It’s you.)
Nir Eyal, who wrote books advising tech companies on how to make their products habit-forming, and also advising people who to break the habit, rejects the word addictive to describe technology.
He explains that all human beings require competency, autonomy, and relatedness, and if they don’t get it in real life, you might look for it online.
We can see this in kids. Kids spend a lot of time on social media. Says Feifer: “Maybe too much time. Maybe a problematic amount of time. But if we keep thinking that the product is the source of the problem, the sole source, that these kids are simply powerless against the weight of addictive products, that we are not allowing ourselves to understand or to help to solve actual problems.”
Kids today don’t get a lot of feeling of competency, autonomy, and relatedness. Kids are subjected to a lot of standardized tests, which tell them they’re not good enough. In Minecraft or Fortnite, kids can get competent.
Kids are bound by rules and restrictions. Eyal says. “There’s a study done by Peter Gray that showed that children in America have 10 times as many rules imposed on them as adults, twice as many restrictions as a convicted felon in prison.
There’s only two places in society where you can be told what to do, where to go, what to think, who to be friends with what to eat, and that school in prison. And so is it any surprise when they come home from school, they want freedom, we all need agency and autonomy, we need that for our psychological well being. So, where do they find it? Well, online, you can be the God of your universe, you can control your environment. That feels good.
And, finally, relatedness — or connectedness. Kids don’t get much free play anymore, they don’t get much time to connect with other kids.
So kids retreat online, where they can get competency, autonomy, and relatedness. If you try to solve a kid’s problem by just taking their phone away, you’re not resolving the problem at all.
Same for adults who are addicted to social media. Says Feifer, who once thought of himself as addicted to Twitter:
“I was checking Twitter every few minutes at work. And then I carried that habit home with me, which really aggravated my wife.”
But the problem wasn’t Twitter, Feifer says.
I was working at a job that I just hated, I could not understand what my bosses wanted, which killed my sense of competency. The company had strange and burdensome policies like making everyone switch desks every few months…. the result was that I felt no autonomy. And because I was so sour, I felt disconnected from most of my co workers, which meant no relatedness. So, what did I do? I found all of those things on Twitter, where I felt confident and in control and connected to a community.
Then I eventually left that job, and now I am very happy in my career. And I feel competent and autonomous and connected. And you know what? I don’t look at Twitter much anymore. It is gone from a place I took refuge in to a thing that I look at briefly a few times a day just to see if anyone mentioned me. I wasn’t addicted to Twitter, I was overusing Twitter. Twitter wasn’t an addictive product, Twitter was exactly the same then as it is now. The problem was never Twitter, the problem was me. And the solution, well, that had to come from me too.