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.)
Bonus fun: Play this game, made to go along with this episode, where you can guess how often certain technologies were declared “addictive” across time!
Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the things from history that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer. I am going to detail an unhealthy relationship to you. And I want to know what word you would use to describe it. Okay. You ready? I once checked Twitter about every five minutes. And that is not an exaggeration. I mean, I started as a casual user, and then my usage got heavier and heavier, until I had TweetDeck up on my screen all day during work with multiple columns, following different groups and hashtags and looking at it became as habitual as I don't know, blinking. I would respond to an email and then I would check Twitter, I would go to a meeting and then I would check Twitter. Honestly, I would probably check Twitter during the meeting, I'd have a conversation with a colleague, I'd immediately check Twitter. I was doing it constantly. And then I took this habit home with me, my wife would start to get really annoyed, she would say, "Why, why are you always looking at Twitter? Can't you just put it down for like an hour?"
Jason Feifer: And I wouldn't have a great answer to that. Why couldn't I? All right. So, there it is. That's the unhealthy relationship. Now my question to you is, what is the word for this behavior? Is it habit, routine, thoughtlessness? You may not have an answer, or maybe you do. But I will tell you that many of the loudest people in our culture today from politicians to media personalities do have a word. And it is different from the ones that I just said. They have a word to describe my experience. And here for example, is that word being used by Andrew Yang.
Voice Clip (Andrew Yang): We've already blasted away millions of manufacturing jobs because of automation and technology. And our kids unfortunately, are getting addicted to smartphones in ways that are not positive for their health.
Jason Feifer: And here is US representative Kathy Caster from Florida, speaking recently on a congressional subcommittee hearing called Disinformation Nation, using the word.
Voice Clip (Kathy Caster): And the apps on platforms that are designed to be addictive and keep kids hooked.
Jason Feifer: And here is Joe Rogan.
Voice Clip (Joe Rogan): You're checking this and checking text. And boy, we got a real addiction problem in this country. These are new things.
Jason Feifer: The word if it is not clear, is addiction. And okay, we could go on forever like this. But I'm just going to play you one more example because it advances the narrative a little more. So, these people are not just saying that I and maybe you are suffering from addiction, they are saying that it is an intentionally created addiction that I fell for a trap that was laid down by others. So, here is a BBC interview with Jaron Lanier, who is one of a handful of Silicon Valley types who now get a lot of attention for criticizing the tech industry. And of course, who also appeared in that Netflix documentary called the Social Dilemma. And he will gladly tell you who is to blame for the addiction.
Voice Clip (BBC): You say it's bad for me as an individual, is it bad for me because I'm addicted? Have I become chemically hooked?
Voice Clip (Jaron Lanier): You have. The founders of the great Silicon Valley spying empires, like Facebook have publicly declared that they intentionally included addictive schemes in their designs.
Jason Feifer: And maybe you like me have heard this word addiction so often that you don't even pause on it anymore. It is just truth. It's like, "Maybe we can debate the severity of the addiction or something." But the simple fact of the addiction is part of our basic understanding of the relationship that we have with technology. Technology is addictive, full stop. That's the only word for it. But a few years ago, I heard something that sent me down a rabbit hole that goes back hundreds of years and deep into the weeds of addiction research. And it ultimately made me rethink everything that people are saying about addiction. And I suspect it may have the same impact on you. So, I want to play that little bit of audio for you here. But first, let me give you some context. This is a clip from a podcast called the Ezra Klein Show. Ezra is a journalist and back in August of 2019, he was interviewing an author named Nir Eyal. And who is Nir Eyal?
Jason Feifer:Nir gained a ton of recognition a few years earlier in 2014 when he wrote a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. This was meant to be a helpful book for people who build products. And it came out before the idea of habit-forming products seemed so worrisome. And so the book did very well and it was widely praised. But of course, then our cultural narrative shifted, habit-forming products began to sound nefarious. And so in 2019, Nir wrote another book, this one was called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Which seemed to many people like an acknowledgement from Nir, that habit forming products can be addictive. So, okay, the journalist Ezra Klein, has the book author, Nir Eyal on his podcast to discuss all of this. And they end up on the subject that you just heard referenced a moment ago, which is that the creators of popular digital technologies like smartphones and social media apps are believed to have intentionally created things that are addictive.
Jason Feifer: And Ezra wanted to know, should these people be held responsible for this? So, okay, that is the setup. Now, I'm going to play for you the moment that made me start to question everything. Though, I admit you may not appreciate the scale of this moment immediately. So, stick with me here. Ezra speaks first, and then you hear Nir respond.
Voice Clip (Ezra Klein): And it's all well and good for folks who are profiting off of all this to have recognized deep inside of it the harms, but then, outside of that, way outside of the circle of people who are not nearly as tech savvy, and are not nearly as sort of schooled on it, I think there's culpability there. That well, the book like this [crosstalk 00:05:56].
Voice Clip (Nir Eyal): Do you think it's the company's responsibility to make products that are less engaging?
Voice Clip (Ezra Klein): Yes.
Voice Clip (Nir Eyal): Do we really want... Are we going to shake our fists at Stuart, at Slack and Netflix, and these companies and say, "Hey, your product is too engaging. Netflix, your shows are so interesting. I want to watch them all the time. Ezra, stop making these podcasts so good that I want to listen to them instead of being with my family." This is ridiculous. Ezra-
Voice Clip (Ezra Klein): Is it?
Voice Clip (Nir Eyal): ... the price of progress, we want these companies to make products that we want to use, what is the alternative? Please make shitty products that I don't want to use? No, we want products to be engaging.
Jason Feifer: Okay. So, now let me explain why that moment really got to me. It wasn't just the argument itself, though, for what it's worth, I do find Nir's argument to be compelling. But then I thought about what the counter argument would be. And here's where it gets interesting. Because when Nir says that we want products to be engaging, the counter argument would naturally be, well, Nir there's a difference between engaging and addictive. And then I thought, "Well, okay, when does something transform from engaging to addictive?" When social media was new for example, it was engaging, nobody had a problem. Now, it's addictive, and that is a problem. So, what was the tipping point? Was there a certain line of code, a certain feature? When exactly does something become addictive? And then this made me ask a fundamental question that I realized I didn't know the answer to, and that I've never actually heard articulated in any of these claims of addiction. And that is, what is the definition of addiction? And how do you know if something is genuinely addictive? Which led me into conversations like this one.
Liam Satchell: These sorts of concerns about things like internet use, or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community, as much as they've come from people who are interested in technology first.
Jason Feifer: That is Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester in the UK, who specializes in methodology and mental health, and who like many of his peers, are concerned about how the word addiction is used by people who have absolutely no background in mental health.
Liam Satchell: That's why this was psychiatric definition, and the core elements of a mental health condition being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, occupational disruption, need to be embedded in any definition of addiction that we might use.
Jason Feifer: And this isn't just because of some kind of turf war over who gets to use the word addiction, right? This is because if we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people, right?
Liam Satchell: Right. We want to help people who have real issues and real problems. And therefore if we're going to start using medicalized language to talk about people, then those words have to mean something.
Jason Feifer: Now, take that and apply it to the conversation that Ezra and Nir were having. They could go around and around in circles for ever, in part because they probably have very different definitions of the word addiction. And if our cultural conversations about tech addiction aren't actually based on any agreed upon definition of addiction, then what are we talking about? Are we talking about anything of substance at all? The more I dug into this, the more I learned, not only is this conversation about addiction, well, totally foolish. Is that too strong? But also it has real, very real, very human consequences. And that is the case I am going to lay out for you today. On this episode of Build for Tomorrow, I am asking one of the biggest questions in our public discourse today, which is, is technology addictive? And we are going to answer it for real with people who know what addiction really is and who study it and who are going to methodically pick apart everything that you've heard before.
Jason Feifer: And then I go to sit down with the guy who started it all for me, I talk with Nir Eyal himself, because he has a very different word to describe what most people call addiction. And it is, dare I say, a game changer. It's all coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So, today what do we talk about when we talk about addiction? Before we get too deep into today's use of the word, let's back up for a second and ask how did we even get here? Liam who is the methodology and mental health researcher you heard a moment ago, well, he has a theory about this.
Liam Satchell: This interesting paradox with widening the knowledge and awareness of what mental health conditions are.
Jason Feifer: Over the course of the last few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health which of course is a very good thing. But Liam says that it had the unintended effect of also introducing lots of medical language into the common vernacular.
Liam Satchell: People feel it's easier to use medicalized language to refer to their own behavior. We've all got that one friend who says, "Oh, I'm a little bit OCD." Or that friend who says, "Oh, this is my big PTSD moment."
Jason Feifer: And that well, may be true, but interestingly, this is not a wholly modern problem. So, the fantastic twitter feed, Pessimists Archive, which you may know, this podcast was once associated with, has found a ton of examples of supposed addictions throughout history. So, just to put our current claims of smartphone and social media addiction into proper context, here is a very abbreviated history of medical language being applied to new technologies. We can start... Well, just for our own purposes here, probably goes back even further with novels in the late 1700s, people were concerned about what they called reading mania. One expert of the time named J.G. Heinzmann, wrote that this mania could cause.
Voice Clip (J.G. Heinzmann): Weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.
Jason Feifer: That is all very specific, but really even the term reading mania is technically medical. Manic episodes are not a joke, but this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches like in this 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant.
Voice Clip (Newcastle Weekly Courant): The watch mania as it is called, is certainly excessive. Indeed, it becomes rabid.
Jason Feifer: And then we get into the addictions. In 1924, the Palladium Item of Wisconsin reported on a women's club where one woman had a ton of pencils in her bag because she collects pencils. Another spends a lot of time watching birds. What is the stories headline? It is this.
Voice Clip (Palladium Item of Wisconsin): Survey shows women are addicted to hobbies.
Jason Feifer: And then, a short while later in 1930, people were so excited about radio technology that the Eugene Register of Oregon reported.
Voice Clip (Eugene Register of Oregon): Radio addiction is held by some to be a mild form of insanity.
Jason Feifer: Addiction and insanity. There was actually a ton of concern about radio addiction back then, which went beyond newspaper headlines. It was written about in medical journals. The same was true a few decades later for comic books and then as we got into our more modern era, we started applying the words to... Well, here is advice columnist Ann Landers, in 1979.
Voice Clip (Ann Landers): Telephone addiction indicates loneliness.
Jason Feifer: And in the Associated Press, in 1980, in a story headlined, No Cure for Viewers Television Addiction, we learned about this unfortunate man.
Voice Clip (Associated Press): Michael Clark, is hooked, but not on booze or drugs, his nemesis is the television set.
Jason Feifer: And in 1994, the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia ran a piece about women who are hooked in a very serious and medicalized way, on the game of Tetris.
Voice Clip (Sydney Morning Herald of Australia): Someone about Tetris addiction. In a recent report for Nintendo, psychologist Barbara McAuliffe wrote that Game Boy play can result in driven pleasure, less participation that excludes socializing and other creative forms of relaxation.
Jason Feifer: Were any of the things on that list actual addictions? Well, here's one way to look at it. We now coexist quite naturally, with all the things on that list. Novels, watches, phones, Tetris. If they were addictive, then the addiction seems to have somehow just worn off or disappeared, which is quite different from substances like alcohol or heroin, which do not have periods of time in which they are or are not wildly addictive. So, in retrospect, what might have been happening in all of those moments? Well, people who research this stuff have a very nice term for it.
Joel Billieux: One of the risk of applying [inaudible 00:17:14] criteria to define behavior addictions is typically pathologization of normal behavior.
Jason Feifer: Pathologizing normal behavior. This is Joel.
Joel Billieux: I am Joel Billieux, I work as a professor of psychology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Jason Feifer: To be precise, a professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment. Joel also works at the Center for Excessive Gambling in the hospital system there and is an expert in a World Health Organization work group related to the public health implications of certain behavioral addictions. And the reason I am detailing all of that, is to explain how he is at the forefront of a major, hotly debated question in psychology, which goes to the heart of this question that we are discussing about tech addiction. So, let's back up to understand it. The scientific community is grappling with a big question and it is this, how do we identify behavioral addiction? Because for the most part, we associate addictions with substances, drugs, alcohol, that kind of thing. Hello, what about gambling or gaming, or smartphone usage? We have generally agreed upon medical criteria for substance addiction, but we do not have that for behavioral addictions. So, if these are addictions, how do we define, identify and treat them? Well, Joel researches exactly this.
Jason Feifer: And the reason I called him, is because he co authored a very interesting paper that was published by the Society for the Study of Addiction. And it was titled, How Can We Conceptualize Behavioral Addiction Without Pathologizing Common Behaviors? In other words, how do we determine what is truly addictive behavior? And what is normal behavior that we are simply calling addictive? And you might think, "Well, this is straightforward, we have to start with the definition of addiction." So, buckle your seat belts and let's get going because this is actually a more complicated question than it seems.
Joel Billieux: If you consider beaver addiction, there has been run epistemological challenge back in 2013.
Jason Feifer: What is up with the year 2013? Well, let me tell you. The American Psychiatric Association publishes a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And it is functionally the book that classifies mental disorders and lays out a standard criteria for understanding them. For clinicians, researchers, insurance companies, policymakers and basically everyone who touches mental health in some way, this book is what they use to have a common understanding. It is certainly not a perfect book, it has been the subject of controversy, but at its core, the DSM is the way that we have some version of standardized mental care in America and elsewhere in the world. Now, Joel said specifically, the year 2013. That is the year when the latest edition of the DSM came out. It is called DSM-5, because it is the fifth edition. And it contained something new and well earthshaking in the world of addiction research. In the section of the book about addiction, the DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction.
Jason Feifer: This is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction. And then, the DSM-5 went a tidy bit further. It proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study. And in particular, it named checked gaming. So, in short, the DSM-5 said this, "If someone is hooked on drugs, or alcohol, or gambling, we are looking at the same problem. It is an addictive disorder. And there might be more behaviors that also rise to the level of addictive disorder, but we do not know so the question should be studied." And here is what Joel says happened next.
Joel Billieux: So, typically condition that need further research before being recognized as a real mental condition. And a lot of people ignore that.
Jason Feifer: Researchers started launching studies, not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive. And then to see how many people have the addiction. And that led to a lot of news like this report from Fox 35. Orlando.
Voice Clip (Fox 35 Orlando): Right now on the Healthwatch, when people think of addiction, they usually think of drugs and alcohol. But it turns out, you can also be addicted to your cell phone, and it can have serious effects.
Jason Feifer: Very alarming studies have come out in the past few years, in one case, showing that 26% of US university students met the criteria for internet addiction. And that sounds terrifying. It also just feels true, right? Like, "Don't we all use our phones a lot and isn't a lot the equivalent of addiction?" For example, here is this report from the CBC.
Voice Clip (CBC): And it seems the addiction to information is getting stronger. A new report out of the UK finds that people here are looking at their phones every 12 minutes.
Jason Feifer: You hear that and you think, "Yikes, I do that too." But to people who study addiction, there is a large gulf between something that sounds like addiction, and something that is addiction. So now let's ask another pretty basic question, which is, what exactly is addiction?
Liam Satchell: So, whenever we're talking about mental health conditions in the broadest sense, we're talking about people experiencing significant disruptions to their occupational, social, family lives, or we're talking about people experiencing significant distress.
Jason Feifer: This again, is Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester in the UK, who specializes in methodology and mental health.
Liam Satchell: In the case of addiction, where you have a particular substance or behavior that you are obsessed with, you cannot move away from, it preoccupies all your thoughts to the point that it is destroying your social, occupational or social life. That's a particularly strong set of behaviors, and a particularly unique outcome.
Jason Feifer: So, how do you measure this? How do you look at any set of behaviors and say, this is addiction? Well, just a moment ago, we heard the news of this alarming study, people check their phones every 12 minutes. That sounds like a lot. So, maybe frequency of use is a good factor in identifying addiction. But Liam says, no, that by itself says nothing.
Liam Satchell: I eat every day. That doesn't mean I'm pathologically addicted to eating because it's part of my routine.
Jason Feifer: And maybe you say, "Yeah, yeah, but eating is healthy and social media is not." But that is not science. You don't make important medical decisions based on assumptions. There are a lot of theories about the negative impact of social media use, and there are a lot of assertions, but tech critics are not actually backed up by hard science. In fact, it is the opposite. There are a lot of studies out there showing a correlation between social media use and mental health, but nobody has proven a causation. Possibly, for example, people who struggle with their mental health may use social media more, that is a correlation. But it says nothing about a cause. For example, it says nothing if there was an actual impact of the social media use on someone's mental health. And in the past few years, a lot of studies have looked closer at the true impact of use, and they found nothing scary.
Jason Feifer: In the spring of 2021 for example, the Oxford Internet Institute, which is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department at the University of Oxford, released a study of more than 430,000 children between the ages of 10 to 15, and found "little association" between technology use and mental health problems. So, if we are talking about identifying addictive disorders, a medical problem, as opposed to simply the pathologizing of a common behavior, then we need to know for real, where is the line between problem and not a problem. Frequency of use just does not tell you enough, checking your phone every 12 minutes sounds like a lot, and maybe it is a lot, but is it a problematic amount? That has no answer. So, okay. If frequency alone isn't a good factor, then maybe we should look at increase the frequency over time. I used to check my phone every 30 minutes for example, and now I check it every 12 minutes.
Jason Feifer: That sounds alarming. And also, it sounds like the hallmark of someone addicted to a substance. One cigarette a day, turns into 10, turns into multiple packs a day, you get the idea. Same thing with technology, right? But Liam says no.
Liam Satchell: You can't really talk about change over time meaningfully, because so many things change over time, time itself is not a good variable. So, when people look at things like they're using their phones more, or the ways in which we can interact with each other develops a lot more in the ways in which we can pass social information or work information increase in accessibility and feasibility, what we're doing is we're providing more opportunities for interaction. And because we're doing that more and more and more, it may preoccupy more of our thoughts, we may think about it more often. The irony is here though, is that these are social, occupational and familial obligations. These are ways to engage with our work, our family, and our friends. And therefore, it's kind of antithetical to what we sort of talk about, these core elements of a psychiatric disorder, which is the inability to keep up with those things.
Jason Feifer: This is worth pausing on, because it's actually a wildly complicated issue. The hallmark of addiction is that it interferes with social or family or occupational life. But when you use social media or the internet, you are generally participating in your social or family or occupational life. And yes, connecting with people on Instagram is not the same as in person. But this is also true of connecting with someone by phone, which we once thought of is problematic, and now we no longer do. Also, let's keep in mind that as we migrate more of our tasks and connections into these digital spaces, it would stand to reason that we spend more time engaging with digital tools. For example, I used to work in an office where we had daily morning meetings in person, but that was a giant waste of everyone's time, I hated it, everyone hated it. Now that I run my own team, we do not have something like that. Even pre pandemic, never had it. I wasn't interested.
Jason Feifer: Instead, I just have everybody mostly communicate by Slack and email. If increased frequency of use is a trustworthy measurement of addiction, then what did I just do? Well, I just stepped up everyone's use of Slack and email, which presumably would move everyone into the danger zone, because everyone's frequency of use just went up. I changed the usage over time. But in reality, this increased usage is due to a productive engagement in work. And that, Liam says, is why an increase of usage over time is not a good factor in determining addiction. So, what is a useful measurement? Well, according to Liam, no one really has one. There's certainly nothing standardized and generally accepted. Which raises an important question, what are researchers using? All of these studies have come out claiming very alarming things like 26% of college students are addicted to the internet. So what are those studies based on? What are their metrics for making these claims? Liam wondered, just that. So, he popped the hood on their methodology to see what the results were actually based on. And here's what he found.
Liam Satchell: They just reworded older measures. And they've taken things for example, alcohol use addiction and say, "What if we swapped the word alcohol for social media, can we get similar outcomes?"
Jason Feifer: So, okay. If someone is struggling with substance abuse, let's say that this person has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, then they might sit down with a psychiatrist for an evaluation. And the psychiatrist would ask a lot of questions that are standard in the industry. They're trying to assess this person's problem and their mindset and things like that. So, when these new set of researchers came along to measure people's potential addiction to technology and social media instead of substances, they just took the exact same questions. The questions used to assess something like alcohol addiction, and just swapped out some words. The question how many times per day do you drink alcohol? For example, would simply become how many times per day do you check social media?
Liam Satchell: Now, the problem there is that you're moving too many barriers at once. There are many things that we might say, which are problematic engagements with alcohol. For example, consuming alcohol excessively every single day is bad, but spending time with your family every single day isn't bad. So swapping these words out isn't as sort of good measurement as you might think.
Jason Feifer: The statement, "I drank alcohol five times this morning," is very different from the statement, "I checked my email five times this morning." How can anyone compare those two? But the researchers sure tried.
Liam Satchell: One of the main problems is that these measures often use researcher defined cut offs, researchers pick a number, and that number is usually people saying they're not sure to just over half the items, which is weird when you say out loud. So, if people are not sure on over the half of the items on your social media checklist, you define that they have an addiction problem.
Jason Feifer: Did you follow that? I got to admit, I did not follow that at first. So, let me break it down. Let's say that you are participating in one of these studies to determine if you are addicted to social media, a researcher might ask you this question. When you are not on Twitter, are you thinking about what your friends are doing on Twitter? And let's say that you just do not know the answer to that. Because it's just not something you're really consciously aware of. The researcher will consider your non answer to be a sign of a problem. And the reason for that, is because in evaluations of people with substance abuse issues, non answers are often problematic.
Liam Satchell: So for example, for people who might have things like problematic behavior with alcohol, or violent tendencies, which is where a lot of this mission came from. If you're not sure whether or not the best way to solve the dispute is by punching someone in the face, then that's indicative of some sort of pathological behavior.
Jason Feifer: If you do not know whether it's okay to punch someone in the face, that is a problem. But if you don't know if you think about Twitter when you're not on Twitter, well, is that the same problem? The researchers of these studies are saying, "Yes, same problem." So, okay. Liam is digging into how these studies are being conducted. And the inner geek in him is just going crazy.
Liam Satchell: So, this problem of measurement of it bothered me for a long time, I know measurement is a weird thing to be obsessed with, but it bothers me.
Jason Feifer: So in response, Liam and a team developed a very interesting research study. And here's what they did. First of all, they gathered up a bunch of those very alarming studies about social media addiction. And then they copied their methodology, but with one little important difference. Instead of asking questions about social media use, they asked questions about spending time with friends. Now, remember what was going on here. In clinical assessments of substance abuse, a psychologist might ask a question like, how often do you think about drinking alcohol during the day? And then the social media researchers just took questions like that, and they swapped in their own language so that the question might become, how often do you think about social media during the day? Now, Liam and his team are taking that same question, and they are now asking, how often do you think about spending time with friends during the day?
Liam Satchell: This is not a good way to develop a psychiatric measure or a psychological measure, but we're doing exactly what they've done. So, now we have a series of statements of things like, "I often think about how I could free up time to spend more time with friends. I often lose track of how much time I spend with my friends." Which tells you when you read a statement, you're like, "Yeah, that's having friends. That's a relatively normal thing to do." So we followed the exact same steps as their validation, we didn't have any clinical psychiatric criteria for friend addiction either, much like them. So we just used some other similar measures of social interest. We also asked people to self-report the amount of time which they spend with their friends.
Jason Feifer: That self-reporting was intentional, by the way, because it is a recurring problem in studies about social media use. These studies generally rely upon people self-reporting, how much time they spend on social media, which of course, is total garbage, because nobody can answer that properly. Do you know exactly how much time you spend on social media in the past two weeks? I don't.
Liam Satchell: So we received the criticism that people are very bad at self-reporting their time with their friends, and we wholeheartedly agree, but these are our criteria for validation that we can use. We built together all these questions, we gave them out to a large sample of people, larger than a lot of the other study samples that studies have used in the past, a sum of 807 people throughout the UK, we did a test retest following up later, which is good practice in measurement development. And our conclusions were when we looked at our data, that 69% of people were pathologically addicted to wanting to spend time with other people.
Jason Feifer: That's very troubling.
Liam Satchell: It's... We sort of say in the paper, "This is the sign of a significant health crisis if true." People aren't dependent on their friends, they can't stop thinking about their friends, how do they cope in society? This stuff was correlated with the amount of time that they spend with their friends. So, people who spend more time with their friends are more likely to become addicted. So, we didn't put this in the paper, but if I follow the social media research here, we should be telling our kids to cut down on friend time for the risk that they become too used to spending time around their friends and exchanging social information, because it'll only get worse as time goes on.
Jason Feifer: Now, this is all fun and interesting. But to be clear, Liam is not discounting the possibility that some people have a harmful relationship with social media or the internet.
Liam Satchell: I wouldn't dismiss anyone who is saying that their own behaviors are causing disruption in their lives. That being said, we are not really in a place yet to be talking blanketly about large parts of our population having medical conditions, because the way in which we communicate has changed medium. And we really need to spend a lot of time sort of soul searching and asking ourselves how scary these new technologies actually are, or are they just different?
Jason Feifer: So, okay. Now we have a better idea of the situation. The word addiction is commonly associated with technology, but it has no real grounding in science. Next, we need to ask this, is there anything wrong with this? Because maybe you could say, "Ah, this is all a rhetorical trick." Who cares if we're talking about real addiction, or just a very strong habit, because the point is to raise awareness of how much we use this stuff, instead of engaging with other things in our lives. But no, this is not a rhetorical trick. This is an issue with real consequences. Joel has seen it many times before, as he has worked with people who have a "gaming addiction."
Joel Billieux: For a lot of people, you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping that is displayed to face with social anxiety or trauma or depression.
Jason Feifer: Let's say someone comes into a clinic, their gaming usage meets a certain definition of addiction, it is having a negative consequence on their social, family, or occupational life. But a trained clinician like Joel, must be able to look underneath those symptoms and find potential other issues.
Joel Billieux: In those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se, you will target what caused depression. And then as a result, if you succeed, gaming will diminish,.
Jason Feifer: Gaming was not addictive. Gaming was a coping mechanism for an issue like trauma or depression. And because Joel was able to understand that, he was able to help the person through their actual issue, at which point the reliance upon gaming subsides. That is the definition of good care. But now, imagine how else that situation could have turned out. Let's say a person has an unhealthy relationship to some technology, and we believe that it is a technology problem, because the technology is addictive. Naturally, by itself, programmed to be addictive. That's how we talk about this stuff, right? I mean, social media is addictive. Smartphones are addictive. Here is the best selling author, Simon Sinek, who has a very large platform, saying very medical sounding things.
Voice Clip (Simon Sinek): It's basically what happened, you have an entire generation that has access to an addictive numbing chemical called dopamine through social media and cell phones as they're going through the high stress of adolescence.
Jason Feifer: Listen to all that. Addiction, numbing, dopamine. Is Simon Sinek a doctor? Let's take a look here. He graduated college, went to law school, dropped out, went into advertising. Nope, not a doctor. All the same, he is here to tell you that technology itself is medically addictive. So, okay. You build a systemic response based on that belief that technology is addictive. And then you build governmental policy based on that belief that technology is addictive. And then when someone comes in with a genuine problem, what are you going to do, you're going to say the technology is the problem. And then you're going to try to treat the addiction when in fact, there is no addiction, there was a genuine problem manifesting itself as a symptom that looks like addiction. But because you're so focused on addiction, you are not going to recognize the real problem and you're not going to be able to solve it. Or it goes the other way.
Jason Feifer: Remember all those news articles about how terrible it was that during quarantine kids spent so much time playing video games and how that might be fueling an addiction? Well, if you're a parent, you might hear that and think, "I need to get this kid off the video game." But Joel says, "Hold up, very interesting preliminary data has found that gaming can actually be a protective factor against psychological suffering."
Joel Billieux: Why? Probably because gamers are able to continue to fulfill these very basic needs that we are all needed as human beings like social affiliation, or a competition of mastery, those kind of things.
Jason Feifer: So now you're taking away the games because they seem addictive, when in fact, it is the removal of the games that will be the real cause of harm. Now, it has been said before, on this episode, but I need to say it again very explicitly. None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem. I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as a smartphone or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here is to understand that people are complicated and our relationship with technology is complicated and addiction is complicated. And our efforts to simplify very complex things and make generalizations across broad portions of a population can lead to real harm. And for that matter, telling this narrative about technology addiction can also harm ourselves. Because we are teaching ourselves how to be helpless.
Nir Eyal: And the price of living in a world with so many good things in it, is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use. One surefire way to not do anything, is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about.
Jason Feifer: Learned helplessness. That voice should sound familiar by the way. It is Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indestructible, who I heard on Ezra Klein's podcast, which inspired this episode. When I got in touch with Nir, I learned that he is actually a listener of my show, which is amazing. And he was happy to explain the consequences of all this talk of addiction. And to give us a much healthier way to think about our relationship with technology. So, that is what we are going to talk about next, right after this short break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we are back. Just before the break, we heard Nir Eyal say that this talk of addiction is teaching a kind of learned helplessness, a belief that we have no control over ourselves. And okay, let's start by hearing a little bit more about that because it is a pretty powerful claim.
Nir Eyal: By medicalizing an otherwise normal behavior and telling everybody that we're all addicted, well, then what can we do about it? Nothing. Because when you have an addiction, you have a pusher, you have a dealer, you have a substance that controls you, so to speak. And so how can you possibly do something about that? You can't. And this is why you see article saying technology is hijacking your brain and why they love using the word addiction, because addiction denotes a lack of agency.
Jason Feifer: So, all right. If addiction is not a good word, then what is a good word? What changes this narrative?
Nir Eyal: When you call it what it really is, a distraction or overuse, oh, no. Now, I can do something about it. But that's no fun. Now I actually have to change my behavior as opposed to just shaking my fist at these companies and hoping the politicians and the companies will do something about it.
Jason Feifer: And by the way, Nir is not the only person who said something like this to me. I heard it from the addiction researchers as well like Joel who basically said we need to think of most people's tech use even if it's very heavy as a choice that they are making.
Joel Billieux: A choice, a willful choice. And perhaps, so many people would not agree or would criticize your choices, but I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense.
Jason Feifer: Now, I feel like I need to add the caveat again, if something is genuinely interfering with your social or family or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help. But for the vast, vast majority of people, this is the more realistic way to think about it, you are making a choice, that choice may have formed a habit and breaking habits requires work, but it is possible if you really have the will to do it. In Nir's book, he offers a lot of different ways to change your behavior. He says, for example, that if you want to overcome your distractions, you must first understand what drives your behaviors in the first place. Why are you choosing to do what you're doing? Is it to avoid something else that you don't want to do for example?
Nir Eyal: There are two psychologists by the name of Deci, and Ryan, and they came up with the self-determination theory. Self-determination theory is the most widely accepted and study theory of human motivation, which says that all human beings for psychological well-being and flourishing, require three things. I call these psychological nutrients. We need competency, autonomy, and relatedness. All of us do.
Jason Feifer: And if you don't get those things in the real world, you may turn to find them in the virtual world. This can be seen clearly in kids. A lot of discussion of tech addiction is framed around kids, our teenagers and their social media use, our young people and their screen time. And true, kids spend a lot of time on these things. 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.
Nir Eyal: So, when you look at kids lives today, it's pretty easy to understand why they're not getting enough of these three psychological nutrients.
Jason Feifer: Again, those three are competency, autonomy, and relatedness. Now, let's see how that plays out in kids lives. First, competency.
Nir Eyal: One of the things that we've seen over the past decade or so, along with the rise of personal technology, is also the rise of standardized testing. So, kids today are tested and teachers teach towards the test more than ever before. And this has created a whole subclass of kids who unfortunately, are constantly told they are not competent, right? They take these tests that tell them you are not sufficient, you need to perform better, you're not competent. Well, if you get that feeling at school in real life, and then you come home and you've got Minecraft, or Fortnite, or whatever game makes you feel in control, makes you feel competent, that feels good.
Jason Feifer: Next, let's talk about autonomy.
Nir Eyal: 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. Over the past 50 years, we know that children play less than ever, free play, right? They're coached, they're supervised right between the baseball and the Kumon, and the swimming lessons and the Mandarin, they're scheduled all day long.
Nir Eyal: But in terms of free play, time to just socialize with friends, record low number of children have time in their day for free play. Well, free play is where we learn our place in the world. It's one of the most important things for psychological well being, is to let your kids have free play. But now with recess being cut, and kids hyper scheduled all day long, or for parents who can't afford after school activities, the media has scared the hell out of everyone so much that people keep their kids indoors. They don't let them play outside. When we were kids, that's what we did after school. We played for hours. And that was great for us. Well, today, parents keep their kids indoors, or hyper schedule them. And so if you don't get that sense of relatedness offline, you get it online. So, you use Facebook and you use Instagram and you use Snapchat because that's where you connect with people just like we used to do on the phone with our friends.
Jason Feifer: That is a far richer, more complex picture of a young person's relationship with technology. Now, if you've got a kid who's using their smartphone in what appears to be a harmful way, and you try to resolve the problem by simply taking the smartphone away, because you think that's the addictive thing without resolving any of the issues that are driving all the smartphone usage, what have you done? Well, at the very least, I don't think that you've made the situation any better.
Nir Eyal: And unless we parents deal with that fact through some simple steps, right? Scheduling time for play with your kids, making sure that you're hacking back the external triggers that don't serve them that disturb them during sleep, helping them learn how to manage their own technology, not giving technology too soon to kids. These are some simple things we can do. But fundamentally, if we don't look at those deeper reasons why our kids are turning to technology to this extent, the problem will never go away. And they'll never learn how to cope with those internal triggers themselves.
Jason Feifer: And here's some interesting real world evidence for all this that you don't have to dig very far to find. As kids grow older, and they gain more agency over their lives, their technology use changes.
Nir Eyal: The vast majority of people stop playing these video games. Do you think people are still going to be playing Fortnite and Candy Crush in 10 years or so? Of course not, they'll be doing something else once they get interested in other things that they decide to pursue. So, if it's really the behavior this technology is doing to us, that shouldn't make sense. They should be addicts for life, but that's clearly not what happens.
Jason Feifer: And this isn't just true for kids, it's true for all of us when we make changes in our lives. As Nir was talking, I flashback to this time that I was seemingly addicted to Twitter, I told you about it in the beginning of the episode. Remember, I was checking Twitter every few minutes at work. And then I carried that habit home with me, which really aggravated my wife. But now that I'm thinking about these three psychological nutrients, competency, autonomy and relatedness, I am realizing how little of them I had, at that time, 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, because... I don't even know. Because somebody read some stupid management paper, I don't know. But anyway, the result was that I felt no autonomy.
Jason Feifer: 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. Which leaves me with one final question. Why do we continue to hear the word addiction applied to technology, despite the evidence against it? Let's be clear here. Just because tech isn't addictive, that doesn't mean it's perfect.
Jason Feifer: It is obviously not. These products can always be improved. Social media companies could definitely do better and be more responsible actors in the world. And it seems that they are slowly learning that lesson. And of course, they are making products that are very engaging and designed to keep our attention, which sounds nefarious, but also the cost of living in a world that incentivizes the creation of great things is that and you better believe that I am doing that my best too right now. I want to keep your attention on this podcast, because that's what it means to create something. So, there are problems to solve. There are more responsible ways to engage consumers and to be a consumer. But all of that can be true while it is also true that the word addiction is the wrong word to use to describe common, willful, highly engaged usage of these products. So, again, why does the word persist? Nir, has a compelling answer to this.
Nir Eyal: I think that the narrative that a lot of tech critics propose, rests on addiction in many ways.
Jason Feifer: Consider the incentives of the people telling you the story.
Nir Eyal: Paul Virilio said, when you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. Before that, Sophocles said that nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse. We need to get comfortable with the fact that things come with both goods and bad's. But we don't like that we like to think in binary terms. We like black and white, good guys versus bad guys. But that ain't real life. The fact is, when you get something as miraculous as the internet, you are going to get a lot of bad stuff too. But that means that we don't stop innovating. The way that humans have always progressed is when there is a technological revolution, we adapt our behavior and we adopt new technology to fix the last generation of technology. But that's not a narrative that critics like to tell because they play no role in that narrative. So, what I have to do as a tech critic is I have to say, this bad stuff happens and nothing's going to change because you can't stop using it.
Nir Eyal: So, the reason you have to support me and my cause and my legislation and raise money for my organization that I'm trying to promote, and help me get attention, is because you are powerless, therefore some outside factor must need to intervene. Because if you're not addicted, you can stop. Right? That hypothetically, all this shitty stuff that Facebook and YouTube and whatever the companies are doing, if we're not addicted, we can moderate it, we can dial back. So you need the addiction narrative for it all to hold together. Because if it's just a personal responsibility issue, then wait a minute, why can't we take action into our hands? Well, the answer is of course we can.
Jason Feifer: When we are made helpless, we are in need of helpers. The irony, of course, is that it is as if politicians and authors and heads of organizations are saying, your addiction can only be cured by an additional dependency on me. What a cycle we are in. But if we stop using the word addiction and start using words like overuse or distraction or choice, well, that cycle gets disrupted, we can start to recognize our own role in problematic habits. And our habits can be problematic. To say that tech is not addictive is not to say that everything we do with it is perfectly healthy. Because look, researchers like Liam and Joel caution us against as they say, pathologizing common behaviors. But built into that phrase, common behaviors is a wide range of behaviors. Common behaviors aren't only good behaviors, they could be bad behaviors too. I used to eat a full pint of ice cream in one sitting in college, that was a common enough behavior, but it certainly wasn't a healthy one. And spending half of your day on Twitter is probably not a good thing for your life, either.
Jason Feifer: But remember, we have been here before, people have been claiming a kind of addiction to technology for centuries, they were describing people watching too much TV or listening to too much radio or reading too many trashy dime novels or whatever. And you know what? These people probably were doing too much of that stuff. It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People probably spent too much time with them. And what can we say about all of that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it is common, it is a common behavior, it doesn't mean it's the healthiest one, it's just not a medical problem. So, now we know what we're dealing with. We are humans, humans like distractions. We like new things and we like finding new ways to engage with other humans. And we are not always the best managers of our time, but are we all addicts all the time throughout history every single time something new is introduced to us? No, we are not.
Jason Feifer: What we need most of all, I think is actually pretty simple. What we need in our lives, and in the way we use words like addiction is to simply be more thoughtful. And that's our episode. I came away from this research totally fascinated by the concept of learned helplessness and Nir shares another story that illustrates that really well. So, I'm going to play that for you.
Jason Feifer: But first, I have a free audio course that can help you do it. And you can find it by going to Jasonfeifer.com and clicking on the free training button at the top. While you're there, you can also see more of my work and get in touch directly, I promise to reply. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram, I am @HeyFeifer. H-E-Y-F-E-I-F-E-R, though of course as you now know, I don't check Twitter as much as I used to.
Jason Feifer: This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer. Sound editing by Alec Bayliss. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants, learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The actor you heard reading old articles about addiction was Jia Mora. You can find her at jiamora.com. And thanks to Amy Orban, Britta Lokting, Louis Anslow and Chris Cornelius for their additional help. This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you, then get in touch with them, proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again, that is cki.org.
Jason Feifer: All right. Now, as promised, a little more about learned helplessness from Nir Eyal.
Nir Eyal: The classic story to explain learned helplessness is when you... The way you train a huge elephant to be docile, this comes out of the circus. I don't even know if this actually happened. But the story to illustrate the point is, you start when the elephant is a baby and you tie them to a very strong chain. And then if the baby elephant learns that the chain restricts them, they eventually stop trying and when the elephant grows up to be a big adult elephant, all you need is a piece of rope that they could easily break if they tried. That's learned helplessness. That we form this habit thinking, "Well, there's nothing I can do." So we stop trying. And we see this all the time, right? We blame the food companies for making us fat. We blame the tech companies for making us use their technology. And that's not... Untruths are often cloaked in half truths. And the half truth is that yes, of course, these products are designed to be engaging.
Nir Eyal: We want our food companies to make food that is delicious. I love Cheetos, they're delicious. I don't want to live in a world without Cheetos. However, I need to be aware that if I over consumed Cheetos, bad things happen to my body. And the same thing goes with technology. It's more nuanced. Are these products designed to be engaging? Of course. Do we want Netflix to stop making interesting shows? Of course, we don't. We want Netflix to make interesting shows. That's the purpose. So, the cost of making things that are engaging, the price of progress is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use. One surefire way to not do anything, is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about.
Jason Feifer: So be free, be powerful, except when it comes to this show, which I hope is so engaging that you are addicted. That's all for this time. Thanks for listening. I'm Jason Feifer. And let's keep building for tomorrow.
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