Tech Addiction is Real. It's Not Only Your Brain Being Exploited.

Derek Beres

Derek Beres

Woman staring at phone while drinking coffee

The Evolution of Addiction

The first use of the word “addiction” appeared in ancient Rome. An example of the original definition: If you were indebted to someone, you were enslaved until the debt was paid off. Whereas today you would be sent to jail, in Rome you were sentenced to addiction

Over time, writes NYU associate professor Adam Alter in Irresistible, addiction came to “describe any bond that was difficult to break.” This wasn’t always a bad thing. Book addicts love reading. While coffee might addict a large percentage of the population, it's not likely to ruin their health. In fact, it often helps

Alter points out that addiction is nothing new: Neanderthals carried a gene, DRD4-7R, that influenced their love of risk-taking. Today, 10 percent of humans carry this gene—a gene that increases their likelihood of addiction. 

Addiction has a chemical profile. 

It's not only genes, however. Your environment is equally capable.

Of course, some habits are healthier than others. You’re not going to destroy dopamine receptors by reading too many books.

Thinking on addiction changed in the 19th century when doctors noticed increasing problems with cocaine addicts. While initially treated as a therapeutic miracle—everyone knows about Coca-Cola’s original appeal—it didn’t take long for medical experts to observe disturbing trends among cocaine users. 

One of the most prominent was the intense craving, the outright need, for the drug. This codified addiction’s definition in the modern world: “a biopsychosocial disorder characterized by repeated use of drugs, or repetitive engagement in a behavior such as gambling, despite harm to self and others.”

Biology. Psychology. Society. They all matter. 

Hooked on Tech

Drugs aren’t the only addictive agents in society. As mentioned, gambling is a known addictive behavior—Alter’s book focuses on behavioral addictions.

Apologists for tech platforms tend to separate chemical dependencies from environmental triggers, though in reality, the physiological reaction is the same: a hijacking of your brain’s dopamine network.

While the brain isn't the only responsible agent in addiction, it serves as a meeting ground of sorts. 

Alter writes that behavioral addictions include the following six elements:

  • Compelling goals that are just beyond reach
  • Irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback
  • A sense of incremental progress and improvement
  • Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time
  • Unresolved tensions that demand resolution
  • Strong social connections

A behavioral addiction does not have to include all six, though these markers signify that addiction is potentially present.

The Drug in Your Pocket

Case in point: smartphones. In 2008, adults averaged 18 minutes on their phone every day; by 2015, the number climbed to two hours, 48 minutes. This year, experts predict that we’ll top four hours per day. Millennials are clocking in nearly six hours per day

By now, tech addiction is a well-known phenomenon. A 2017 MIT review found that when users didn't touch their phones for 24 hours their sense of time was distorted—it “seemed longer than a typical day.”

The journalist Nicolas Carr wrote an entire book inspired by his inability to read books after spending too much time on the computer. In the follow-up, The Glass Cage, he noted that the offloading of skills to devices not only distorts time but even our sense of agency.

We’re no longer willing to take responsibility for our actions or lack of knowledge. By placing our memory in a device, spatial navigation suffers, as do our expectations of personal behavior. 

Part of the problem, Carr told me in 2016, is that we don’t understand how important our environment is in orienting ourselves. By putting so much emphasis on a flat-screen we’ve distorted our relationship with the world—and ourselves. 

We also don’t have, as he says,

...a very good language for talking about the physical nature of existence. And so when a computer comes along—a screen—that presents us with a two-dimensional world that isn’t very physically engaging and starves many of our senses, we nevertheless rush to do things through it. We don’t think about the subtle physical qualities, the tactile qualities we might be losing.

This hijacking of physical space is not different than the coopting of mental space—specifically, agency. Any device that can alter both neurochemistry and environment in such profound ways is the very definition of addiction, be it defined as a biopsychosocial disorder or enslavement.

The debt just seems to keep accruing. 

People holding up phones at concert

Breaking the Loop

In 2019, Nir Eyal told Ezra Klein that technological platforms and social media are not, in fact, addictive. In a perverted form of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” he called the inability to put down our phones “learned helplessness.” 

When Klein asked what changed between his two books, Hooked (in which Eyal borrowed from Charles Duhigg’s “habit loop” and added a fourth condition, commitment, when declaring tech companies create addictive products) and Indistractable (in which Eyal took the onus from the platforms and developers and placed the burden on company culture and the individual), Eyal replied, 

I wish people would stop using these terms like “addiction” and “hijacking our brains.” It is 100 percent complete rubbish. It is a great story that makes for wonderful headlines and feeds into our negativity bias and our confirmation bias and gives us a wonderful excuse to not do anything about the problem. The fact is—and I’m telling you this from inside the industry—these behavioral design tactics are good but they’re not that good.

Eighteen minutes just over a decade ago. Four hours and growing today. That’s a pretty good spread. 

Eyal attempts to separate agency from environment. This Cartesian jujitsu is a well-trod distraction. A parallel: pivoting to mental health issues is a trademark move by politicians unwilling to address America’s gun problem. In the tech world, deemphasizing the neurochemistry and environmental aspects of dependence turns it back on the individual: If your child can’t put down the phone, that’s a parenting problem, not an Instagram problem. If you can’t put down the phone, that’s on you. 

In other words, We’ll sell it to you but we certainly won’t take responsibility for it. 

The Complexity of Addiction

Addiction is complex. There’s never a straight line from A to B. Klein mentions his lifelong struggle with weight, another topic that big industry players (in this case, food and sugar lobbyists) love to shove back onto individual responsibility.

That argument falls apart when you consider the multivariate reasons for America’s obesity problem: food deserts, food swamps, farm subsidies, the lagging minimum wage, sugar’s ubiquity (and deception—there are 61 names for it in processed foods), pharmaceutical intervention in health treatment, the cutting of physical exercise programs in school, work environments that are not conducive to movement, the for-profit health care system

Instead of recognizing the complexity of Klein’s argument, Eyal pushes back with a simplistic response. 

Addiction is a pathology that requires three things. It requires a person with a predilection for addiction. It requires the product. And it requires pain that they cannot cope with in a healthier manner. It’s only in the confluence of those three things that actual addiction occurs.

As mentioned, people with a genetic disposition toward addictive behavior account for an outsized number of addicts compared to the general population, but genes are not destiny. He’s removing the environment from the equation. Your surroundings matter as much as genetic predisposition. 

Even pain experts cannot define the totality of what pain entails; using the catch-all term “pain” in this regard is careless. Later, when Eyal equates pain management with time management, he's again adopting a simplistic view. 

As historian Rob Boddice points out, the mind-body dualism favored by behavioralism trapped pain research, which is the lineage Eyal is pulling from.

What happens to the body and mind in a pain state is always mediated through the broad social context of the sufferer.

If your social context—your environment—is predominantly confined to a screen, then yes, the screen (and the companies operating within it) are directly related to your pain. And, in this case, your addiction.

As the conversation continues, Eyal does cede some ground by admitting some people become addicted to tech and platforms, though he then relates being Facebook addiction to Q-tips addiction. Sure, that's actually a phenomenon, but Eyal is distracting us from the conversation. Intentionality matters, a point he consistently overlooks.

Big Cotton Swab never set out to hook a world on Q-tips. Facebook did.

That's the point Eyal refuses to concede. In a nod to Blaise Pascal, he observes that escaping discomfort is the root of distraction. Research shows that people would rather electrocute themselves than sit quietly in a room. Instead of a moment of meditation, we turn to our phone, for no other reason than it’s always within reach. 

The reason our phones are always nearby is what Eyal misses. Few people carry Q-tips with them everywhere.

We can track the neurochemistry of addiction but such endeavors offer an incomplete picture. You also need to understand your environment. When most of your time is spent in the environment of a screen, you’re going to get hooked—by design. 

Or, as experts have pointed out time and again, the hijacking of your brain and environment is otherwise known as addiction.