NY Times bestselling author Adam Alter talks tech addiction, what it’s doing to our brains
IF YOU GO
Who: Adam Alter
What: UNR Med's Healthy Nevada Speaker Series
Where: Pioneer Center, downtown Reno
When: 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18
Learn more: med.unr.edu/healthynevada
RENO, Nev. — In 2014, psychologist Adam Alter came across a New York Times article about technology and parenting styles that raised his eyebrow.
The piece opened with reporter Nick Bilton recounting a conversation he had with Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, around the same time the first iPad was hitting the shelves in late 2010.
“So, your kids must love the iPad?” Bilton asked Jobs, who responded with: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
Bilton’s article unfolds with myriad examples of tech titans who limit screen time in their households. A psychologist and professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Alter was fascinated by this revelation.
“These titans were publicly speaking about the virtues of their products while privately they were very concerned about allowing their kids near those products or even allowing themselves to use them,” Alter said in a phone interview with the NNBV. “As a person who has a background in psychology and marketing, I found that overlap fascinating.”
So much so that Alter started researching the topic of tech addiction. Alter’s interest was further spurred by the realization he was spending a “colossal amount of time” in front of screens. Flappy Bird, Angry Birds and Candy Crush were major culprits, he noted.
“I started to wonder if I was in the minority or whether this was true of a lot of people,” Alter told the NNBV. “It’s hard to believe that, at the time, no one was really writing about the topic and not many people were speaking about it.”
So Alter did. Years of research resulted in him writing “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” a New York Times bestseller released in 2017.
Alter now speaks about the tech addiction epidemic, too. In fact, the NYU professor will be the keynote speaker at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine’s Healthy Nevada Speaker Series on Monday, Nov. 18 at the Pioneer Center in downtown Reno.
THE FACEBOOK EFFECT
According to research platform dscout, people tap, swipe and click their smartphones an average of 2,617 times per day. That shakes out to nearly 1 million touches per year, and an average of 2.42 hours of phone screen time per day.
Alter said Facebook was at the forefront of “understanding how to make products difficult for us to resist” and other social media giants followed their lead.
“The introduction of the ‘like’ button was probably the smartest thing Facebook ever did because it took static content and made it interactive,” Alter said. “The other thing that Facebook did was make the feed bottomless. For a while, you had to click on a button to ‘see more.’ By making the feed bottomless, people didn’t get that subtle cue that it was time to move on.”
Alter added that companies like Facebook use data analysis to keep users locked on their screens — from discovering what location makes a button more clickable to what colors are hardest for users to resist.
Further illustrating Facebook’s addictive designs, Alter pointed to a 2017 interview Sean Parker, founder of Napster and an early investor in Facebook, did with Axios. In the interview, Parker admitted the site is designed to exploit a “vulnerability in human psychology.”
Which begs the question: What is happening inside our brain that keeps us constantly scrolling, tapping and typing?
Dopamine hit after dopamine hit, Alter said.
“Most of us, to some extent, are a little bit socially insecure and we constantly want to know what other people think of us,” he explained. “And so, when you couple the brain response — the release of dopamine — with that feeling of social anxiety that’s almost universal in today’s society, you get what amounts to a compulsive response, especially in younger people, to see how many likes and responses you’ve got.”
Consequently, what is our screen time doing to our mental health?
Alter said that is “the big question” right now, and so far the data is “sketchy.” However, he said it’s clear that more and more screen time amongst teenage girls correlates with a rise in anxiety, depression, bullying, and even suicide.
Although, Alter noted that it’s difficult to isolate the screen itself as the cause of mental health issues amongst teenagers.
“There could be preexisting conditions,” he continued. “It could be that parents who let their kids go on screens for seven hours a day are more neglectful or less engaged or less wealthy or less well-educated … there are all these other factors that might co-vary with that kind of behavior.”
According to Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone and 45 percent say they are online almost constantly. In terms of social media’s impact on their lives, 24 percent describe its effects as mostly negative.
EFFORTS TO CURB USAGE
Five years after Alter began researching for his book, tech addiction is now globally recognized as a real problem in our society. In fact, Alter said in Western Europe and East Asia, in particular, lawmakers are introducing legislation to “curb usage” or “curb the type of hooks” tech companies can build into their products.
“That’s not going to happen in the U.S. anytime soon,” he added.
But, in late July, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology, or SMART, Act. If passed, the bill would ban “addictive” social media features. Gone would be bottomless Facebook and Twitter feeds; gone would be YouTube videos that autoplay; gone would be “Snapstreak” on Snapchat.
To date, however, Hawley’s bill has no backing in the Senate.
“In the U.S., the option is to just go from the bottom up,” Alter said. “We as individual consumers need to regulate our own usage. It’s not ideal. It’s like telling drug addicts there’s nothing we can do about drug dealers.”
“Unfortunately, once developers show up, history disappears and that’s what’s happening to Harrah’s Reno. Like the historic 1875 Adele’s building in Carson City, Bill Harrah’s crown jewel will disappear into the dustbin of history.”