TLV Deep Dive: Outsmarting Our Smartphones«Back

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TLV Deep Dive: Outsmarting Our Smartphones

"Life is what happens when your cell phone is charging."
Unknown

 

Smartphones: The Cigarettes of the 21st Century
 
In the 1990s, a U.S. study, and later one in the U.K., found that cigarette companies were “engineering” cigarettes to be more addictive, a claim the tobacco industry vehemently denied. The U.K. findings listed the following additives and effects:
 
- “Additives are used to make cigarettes that provide high levels of 'free' nicotine, which increases the addictive kick of the product
- Additives are used to enhance the taste of tobacco smoke
- Sweeteners and chocolate are used to make cigarettes more palatable to children
- Eugenol and menthol are added to numb the throat to mask the aggravating effects of tobacco smoke
- Additives such as cocoa are used to dilate the airways allowing the smoke an easier and deeper passage into the lungs
- Additives are used to mask the smell and visibility of smoke that is not breathed in by the smoker”

As recently as the mid 1990s, tobacco industry executives were trying to convince us—and a Congressional panel—that cigarettes are not addictive. A Congressional hearing had been called in response to then new research linking nicotine to addiction and cigarettes to several diseases, prompting a rising tide of anti-smoking sentiment. It also came amid years of outcry over Camel cigarettes’ use of the Joe the Camel cartoon in advertisements, which—despite the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s denials of intent—was naturally more appealing to kids. (Joe the Camel was killed off from advertising in 1997.) 
 

The top executives from the then seven largest American tobacco companies agreed to share with the panel previously un-released research their companies had done about nicotine and humans. Among the most stunning revelations of the hearing was the admission by tobacco companies that they could manipulate the level of nicotine in cigarettes; they claimed, however, they did this only to enhance flavor, not promote addiction.
 
In 2017, such claims seem absurd. When it comes to cigarettes, today we know better. We are now appropriately suspicious about the intentions of the tobacco industry. And the tobacco industry could never get away with such claims today.
 
But do we know better about smartphones? Are we appropriately suspicious about the intentions of the digital technology industry?
 
Consider this:
- Snapchat introduced a feature called “streaks.” A “streak” is when two people message each other directly via Snapchat for a series of consecutive days. Longer streaks are rewarded with certain emojis:

Facebook has an endless scroll feature, purposefully designed to compel users to, well, endlessly scroll.
Instagram is experimenting with a technique of withholding “likes” others give to one's photos and delivering them on a delay and in clusters so users will feel a need to check the app regularly to see when (and how many) likes they got from others.  
Why are these companies doing this? Because they have begun using neuroscience to design their apps specifically to increase “engagement,” put nicely, or addiction, put less nicely…and, it appears, honestly.
 
Silicon Valley seems to love to “hack”—a term that has come to mean (per Urban Dictionary):
 
To program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets. Hacking is a subtle and arguably mystical art, equal parts wit and technical ability, that is rarely appreciated by non-hackers.”
 
Well then we would all be wise to know that scores of engineers are now doing some “digital poetry” on our brains.
 

Brain Hacking: A “Race to the Bottom of the Brainstem”
 
After selling his software company to Google, Tristan Harris took a job there as a product manager. Not long after, he felt constantly assaulted by various digital notifications: emails, Google Chats, calendar invites, to name a few. Doubtful that these various modes of digital communication were amounting to any kind of benefit to his life, despite their efficiency claims, he decided to start a conversation. He put together a144-page presentation to make an ultimate point that: “…never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.”
 
The presentation made the rounds at Google, even reaching co-founder Larry Page. But it made no dent in company culture or ethos. So after three years, Harris quit. He’s now one of the few from within the technology industry willing to speak out about the sneaky ways the industry at large tricks you into addiction of its products. “And it’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions,” Harris told Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes.” “It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem, where if I go lower on the brainstem to get you…using my product, I win.
 
The brainstem takes messages from the brain and communicates them to the rest of the body. It is at the lowest point on the brainstem, the medulla, that autonomic functions of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure are controlled­—functions that relate to the autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is what gets triggered in the face of a threat.
 
If we saw a lion while on a hunt, our brain tells our body we’re in danger. By way of the brainstem, the nervous system undergoes a series of physiological changes to make us more alert to our immediate circumstances and prepare us for quick action to protect ourselves: our heart beats faster to push more blood to muscles and vital organs, should we need to run for our lives. Blood pressure goes up. Small lung airways open up so we can take in more oxygen. Our hearing and vision get sharper, etc. The sympathetic nervous system then releases cortisol, the stress hormone, to help keep the body revved up and on high alert.
 
In this so-called “race to the bottom of the brainstem,” Harris is referring to the ways that certain programmers try to “hack your brain.” Brain hacking is intentionally designing products to form a habit, where the more habit-forming codes are those that trigger your sympathetic nervous system such that relief to the stress comes by returning to the app that created the stress.
 
When Anderson Cooper reported on this notion of brain hacking, he sat for an experiment with researchers at California State University Dominguez Hills. While watching a video, electrodes on his fingers monitored his heart rate and perspiration. Researcher Nancy Cheaver put Cooper’s cell phone out of reach, but kept the volume on. What Cooper didn’t know was that Cheaver was going to send him text messages throughout the experiment. Each time he heard his phone ding, a blue line on the computer spiked, showing anxiety as measured by the release of cortisol.
 
The definition of true addiction is reliance on a substance/behavior to which the only antidote is that substance/behavior. Gambling addiction can cause one to lose vast sums of money—that gambling could then win back, so the cycle goes. The only relief to a smartphone ding is to check the phone. Soon enough, people are conditioned to check their phones every 15 minutes, which half of us are doing even if we haven’t heard a ding. The mere wondering if we’ve missed something on our phones makes us anxious, and its only solution is checking the phone.
 
 
What About Teens?

Teens are particularly susceptible to smartphone addiction because of their naturally anxious state and circumstances. Amid the angsty teenage years, the smartphone’s salve can feel disproportionately soothing, and thereby disproportionately addicting.
 
As of this February, Snapchat remained the most used social media site among teenagers and young adults. Facebook and Instagram don’t fall far behind. Interesting when considering how all three sites devote much research and programming to making their sites and apps as engaging as possible.
 
February 2017
Reach of leading social media and networking sites
used by teenagers and young adults in the United States
 

A Mic reporter spoke to 17 teenagers about Snapchat’s streaks—those consecutive daily streaks of unbroken communications between two people on the app—and discovered some interesting insights. To these kids, streaks were a measure of friendship, and one that could be public to all your Snapchat connections—particularly powerful within the socially awkward and competitive teen years

Per a 16 year old in Brooklyn about Snap’s streaks: “I think in some weird way it makes concrete a feeling of a friendship. Like, you can talk to someone every day, but a streak is physical evidence that you talk every day.” (Talk? Hm.)
 
A 15 year old from Virginia said, “I think streaks are a way of showing how many people you talk to. It’s like a score.”
 
Several of these teens said that if they get their phones taken away or are someplace with limited network/wifi access, they’ll give a friend their Snapchat login credentials to maintain their streaks until they regain phones access. After all, maintaining streaks is a serious time commitment, one they don’t want to see go to waste. Another teen said he wakes up a few minutes early every morning to sustain his streaks.
 
“If you lose the streak, you lose the friendship,” joked an 18 year old in Honolulu.
 
A recent report from Common Sense Media found that 59% of parents feel their teens are addicted to smartphones, and 50% of those teens agree. Some teens are so addicted that their parents are sending them to rehab centers that are beginning up to treat technology addiction.
 
Anderson Cooper sat down with two teens at Paradigm Malibu, a treatment center for teens with emotional or substance abuse issues, and one that is treating the modern day “drug of choice” of teens—smartphone addiction. 
 
 
Upon arrival for treatment, phones are taken away. What these two teens discovered without their phones was the world around them.
 
One of the teens said she was on her phone six or seven hours a day, citing point systems on her social media apps that are “captivating” and “like a monster” that kept her unable to tear herself away. Her friend said that after a couple of weeks in rehab, she realized how much time she was giving over to her phone in sacrifice of self-reflection and processing life. She said she plans to get rid of her phone once she’s back home. Both of these girls learned that it’s okay, even beneficial to sometimes just do nothing.
 
A generation ago, many teens spent almost as much time on the telephone as many kids today spend on their smartphones. But the difference is, when those teens were on the phone, there was no team of engineers analyzing usage and words so they could alter the phone to make users more prone to talking on it.
 
Yet this is what is happening today when we use our smartphones. Technology companies are working hard culling, synthesizing, and analyzing our data to find ways to get us to use their products more and more.
 
In addition, that previous generation of phone talkers couldn’t talk on the phone as they walked to school, at lunch break, at the dinner table, and anywhere in the world a smartphone can go.
 
There’s also the concern that kids being brought up on smart technologies are not learning how to read social cues and body language or understand changes in voice tone. Nor are they learning listening skills or the art of conversation.
 
Melissa Ortega, a child psychologist at New York’s Child Mind Institute, is seeing more of her patients use their smartphones as avoidance. Since so much of their communications are through technologies, they have no capacity or tools for face-to-face conflict. And she’s watched more and more struggle to initiate conversations or small talk. What will the implications be on forging real relationships? Interviewing for colleges or jobs? 
 

We’re All Guinea Pigs in an Ongoing Experiment
 
The truth is, we don’t yet know the implications—on our kids or us. Ramsay Brown, the founder of a Dopamine Labs, uses his neuroscience background to create code for clients designed to elicit a neurological response that keeps the user wanting to come back for more. As he said to Anderson Cooper: “You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people…You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And…[tech companies are] doing this to keep you in there.”
 
We are part of a controlled experiment whose results are still years, maybe decades off. Larry Rosen, Nancy Cheaver’s colleague at California State University Dominguez Hills, noted that there are some nascent projects in place where researchers are scanning teenaged brains over a 20-year period to learn the long-term effects of all this smartphone addiction.
 
Until this 20-year study is complete, we have enough clues about what technology adoption from a young age can do in the near and mid term.
 
A Wall Street Journal article recently reported on a cohort of young men forgoing work and human interaction in favor of playing online video games. The research report authors cite that gaming “accounts for 23% to 46% of the decline in market work for younger men during the 2000s.” Between 2000 and 2015, hours worked by men ages 21 to 30 fell by 12%. For men ages 31 to 55, hours worked fell by 8%. The researches estimated that addiction to online gaming accounts for a least 75% of that 4-point difference in age groups.
 
Why do the researchers think young men are willing to give up establishing careers, diminish earning power over a lifetime, live at home with their parents and forgo seeing friends? It’s the rising quality of these games, creating a “siren-like” call to these young men.
 


The Wild West Era of Digital Technologies

In the meantime, it seems that the digital technology industry could be where the tobacco industry was for the better part of last century.
 
Our logic tells us technology addiction is very likely a thing, and one that cannot be good. Yet the research isn’t there to confirm our suspicions and tell us exactly how it is harmful. The research is at least not available to us. Who knows what Big Technology knows, as they feed us ever more hits of social media dopamine. Until the masses know for sure, ignorance is bliss, so might as well keep on using.
 
There was once a time where advertisers presented groups of attractive, well-attired, smiling people socializing and smoking cigarettes. A cartoon then promoted cigarettes, but not to appeal to kids, we were told. And what do we care if kids smoke anyhow, if cigarettes aren’t addictive or harmful? So the story went.
 
We very well could be living in the smartphone equivalent moment of Joe the Camel cigarette ads, where tech companies are allowed to design products and market as they please, including to young kids. As we learn the truth about the impacts these technologies have on our individual and societal wellbeing, will a certain degree of regulation be needed?
 
We all know that maintaining an always-elevated stress response is harmful. Keeping ourselves in fight or flight mode all day, day after day, we know is not good for our bodies or minds.
 
We also know that texting and driving is a big problem, one that’s only getting bigger. In 2015, more than 3,477 people died (and more than 391,000 sustained injury) from “distraction-affected motor vehicle crashes,” where texting is the most alarming and time-consuming distraction.
 
We know it’s not physically natural for us or are kids to have our heads craned down over our phones all day, both sending us to seek treatment for neck pain and keeping us from looking up at people and the world.
 
We know our kids need to develop interpersonal skills and learn how to nurture relationships. We know we need regular human interaction to be healthy in all senses.
 
We know the blue light of phones and computers is disrupting sleep, which is a particular danger to teens’ emotional, mental and physical health.
 
We know these things are keeping us tethered to work after hours, on vacations, when we’re meant to be giving focus and attention to our friends, families, loved ones—and ourselves.
 
We know that smartphones emit radiation, but we don’t yet know to what long-term health effects, particularly to kids who are on these things from their toddler years.
 
For all the merits and advantages of digital technologies—and we do know there are many—we know that any thing that has more power over us than we have over it can’t be good.
 

So what can we do?

Two years ago, Nir Eyal wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. Eyal claims his intention was to help developers foster healthy habits into their products, like using a wellness app, staying connected with friends and family, etc. He acknowledges, though, that the same techniques he put in his book are being used to hook people in unhealthy ways. To that end, he puts the onus on companies to help users moderate use of their products when it begins to veer towards addicted.
 
Eyal suggests that tech companies use algorithms to identify users who are showing indicators of wanting, but struggling to moderate use and then support them to that end. He also suggests that companies take it upon themselves to build in stops to slow use. An example he provides is that instead of Netflix automatically streaming the next episode, they could give users the opportunity to limit the number of viewing hours over the course of a week.
 
This seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Just as R. J. Reynolds didn’t up and stop using a cartoon in their advertising at will, tech companies are unlikely to voluntarily opt for coding that makes you want to use their products less.
 
As Ramsay Brown, founder of Dopamine Labs, can attest. He and his team built an app called Space aimed at breaking digital habits. Any time you go to launch a social media app, his app creates a 12-second delay, a “moment of zen,” that encourages you to reflect on your impending social media use instead of mindlessly diving in. His team submitted it to the Apple App Store—only to be told by Apple that any apps that encourage people to use other apps or their iPhones less are not going to win distribution in their store.
 
While we wait for some headwinds to force a change in the overall industry quest for smartphone addiction, we can tackle this the old fashioned way: taking personal responsibility and self-regulating.
 
Hopefully it helps to know that we are being used as guinea pigs in a very large experiment. Hopefully it helps to know that when we cannot control our impulses to check our phones, we are playing right into their hands. Hopefully in knowing we are falling prey to designs intentionally trying to hook us, we can see and reclaim our power and the opportunity to exercise more discipline and control.
 
For those of us around kids, we must also serve as models.
 
In the Common Sense Media survey, 28% of teens feel that their parents are addicted to their phones, and 27% of those parents agree. Sixty-nine percent of parents say they check their smartphones hourly, and 41% of teens say they feel their parents are distracted by devices and not paying attention to them when they are together. If that isn’t bad enough, 56% of parents admit to checking their phones while driving, and 51% of teens say they see their parents texting and driving. Any driver, not just parents, has a duty to themselves and those on the road around them.
 
While we probably can’t expect Big Tech to take the high road anytime soon, perhaps we must consider lobbying our kids’ or local schools to help.
 
Bill Daggett, founder and chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education, an organization that partners with districts and schools to support rigorous, relevant, and innovative learning, worked in the New York State Department of Education in the 1970s. When he was new to the department, he was given the tricky and new task of discussing with educators how to teach drug and sex ed to their students so that the state could craft policy. It was awkward, explosive and met with a lot of resistance, with many educators believing this was the job of parents, not them.
 
Daggett believes that social media and online use is the drug and sex ed conversation of today. It’s messy, confusing and just as explosive. But he believes that smart technology use must be taught in schools, not just because of tech’s addictive nature, but also because of the fact that kids do not understand that what they do now online will live forever and can harm them later. (Recall students who just got their Harvard offers rescinded for controversial statements made on Facebook.) He calls online use a “digital tattoo,” not a mere digital footprint—a reality that too few kids understand.
 

Be Smarter Than Your Smartphone
 
The societal implications of a generation raised on these technologies remain unknown. But just as smoking has caused a national health crisis—the expense of which we all burden—who knows how technology addiction might burden our society—from a health perspective, a healthcare cost perspective, an economic perspective and an interpersonal and cognitive development perspective.
 
Just as we didn’t know for some time how smoking ravaged our bodies, we do not yet know how digital technologies might be changing our brains, for good or bad. We don’t yet know the larger implications of how a generational change in how people think, process information and focus could impact society. And we can’t yet see how sharp drops in attention spans might pan out over an economy.
 
As Bill Maher quipped: “Phillip Morris just wanted your lungs. The app store wants your soul.”

Or your brain.


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