Podcast:Behavioral addiction can be corrected at our own discretion
In the digital era filled with explosive information, have you ever considered who is in control of your life: the screen or yourself?
It was a thought that struck Dr Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, around 10 years ago.
"When my wife and I didn't have children, we would spend a whole night next to each other on a couch – the whole night would just disappear, the two of us living two separate lives on that same couch," said Alter, who is also affiliated with the university's Psychology Department.
"I was spending so much time on my phone, my iPad, and other devices, and I didn't think that it was the best way to live. So I wondered: Is this true for everyone? Is it about sitting on the couch at the end of a long night? Or is it something more pervasive?
"From there I started to do more research, and I found that the things that affect you and your life are likely to affect others as well," Alter, who focuses his research on topics that deal with the relationship between technology and behavioral addiction, said.
Alter insisted that screen time does not have "one flavor" only. While there are more discretionary forms of screen time such as being fixated on the news, playing games, or using social media more than we like, screen time also exists when learning a new language, speaking with a loved one who lives far away, attending meetings, or using a map to get around the city.
"I am not suggesting that we eliminate screen time entirely. The importance is to understand the nuances; what different kinds of screen time mean for us," Alter said.
Nevertheless, one message that Alter's work seems to convey is that, be it a privilege or a cautionary tale, the ubiquity of technology is something that we have to live with, and act upon at our own discretion.
Alter, who was born in South Africa, is the New York Times bestselling author of two books: Irresistible (2017) and Drunk Tank Pink (2013). The former discusses why many people today are addicted to various types of behaviors, from incessant smartphone and Internet use to video game playing and online shopping. Drunk Tank Pink investigates how hidden forces in the world around us shape our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Alter studied psychology and law in Australia before getting his PhD in psychology at Princeton University. Observing the natural overlap between psychology and consumer behaviorism, Alter later transported his area of research to marketing, though he is still drawn to psychology.
He has written for several publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He has also shared his ideas on NPR's Fresh Air, Google and Microsoft, among other companies.
Alter spoke to Shanghai Daily on Zoom. The following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What prompted you to write your first book, Irresistible?
A: At first, I had to try very hard to convince people that this was something worth paying attention to. (But) few years later, everyone was on board and understood that this was an issue – people struggled with screens.
One of the first things that made me interested in this subject was the fact that some of the biggest tech people in this world, people like Steve Jobs, when asked if his kids loved the iPad, said, "We don't let them use it. We don't bring the iPad into our home."
You'd think that people who knew the most about these devices would be using them. However, they were rather careful about it, which suggested to me that there was something concerning about these devices.
Q: Even though the term "addiction" was frowned upon, you chose it anyhow. Why?
A: Traditionally, addiction was used to describe a substance abuse: You ingest into your body a drug or alcohol, something you aren't supposed to use because it's ultimately bad for you, though in the short term you really want to keep using it. In its original, ancient form, the term meant "slavery," that you are a slave to the substance.
However, today the term differs in the recognition that there are behavioral addictions that don't involve substances. Therefore, if you know how to design an experience, and if you design it successfully and carefully enough, you can make it almost as difficult to resist as a substance.
The controversial part is where some people still think that we should use this term narrowly to describe just a few substances. But for me, a lot of the experiences we have on screens and elsewhere satisfy a lot of the components of that definition.
And even if we don't say it's an "addiction," just describing how many hours a day we spend on these devices and how bad most of us feel about all that time that's fritted away, I think most of us agree that this is not a good thing.
Q: What is a "stopping cue?" And how does that play into the concept of our attention span?
A: The stopping cue is one of the biggest focuses of my research. Until about 15 years ago, most things had natural end points. For example, you would watch an hour-long episode of a TV show, and when it would end, you'd have to wait for a week for the next episode to broadcast.
When you read a newspaper, or a book, the articles or chapters serve as natural end points – even if you read the whole book, eventually you get to the end. And human beings are good at dealing with that: We take those cues and we use them to help direct our attention and time.
However, we don't have access to those cues in the same way anymore, which I think is one of the most damaging aspects of screens: Almost everything is bottomless.
Q: You have said that sometimes the reason we pick up our phones is "to cure a psychological itch." What can we do to "cure" it?
A: I think it's important to ask what the psychological itch is. If it's loneliness, and if you use the phone to connect to people, you just have to cultivate that connection by being thoughtful and mindful about it. And if it's important to you to not use the phone, you can try to find other ways to connect.
Although this is more difficult during the pandemic, it's still something to think about in the long run, looking at how humans generally operate.
On the other hand, a lot of us are just bored. We become very easily bored nowadays because these devices just bring entertainment to us. We've come to expect a level of engagement from the world.
For instance, we get in an elevator, and everyone pulls out their phones within a second. We get on a public transport, and instead of just standing there and thinking, letting your mind wonder and maybe puzzling through something that's worrying you, or just seeing where your mind takes you, we go right to the phone. If it's depression or anxiety, there are ways to deal with them, such as getting treatment or help. And again, social contact can be good.
Q: Is it bad if we just pick up our smartphones as a temporary curing device?
A: I don't think it's bad, not in isolation, but it's a glaring symptom of a larger problem. Because no one had smartphones in elevators until 15 years ago, which is not a very long time in the course of human history. We used to go into the elevator and just accept that we be there, even if it's the 40th floor.
But it's not that easy anymore! If it was easy, I wouldn't have said it was a problem: Just take your phone out if you want to use it, it'll make the elevator rider more enjoyable. But this says something about how our brains work and how we are made different from all humans that came generations before us. We didn't need that crutch, and I think it's making us weaker as a species.
Q: However, when our work requires us to be on standby almost 24/7, what can we do preserve our mental health?
A: Since the pandemic, a lot of us are forced into the position of working remotely. There's no discretion there. You try your best to go out in nature when you can, to take deep breaths, to take a walk with someone else if that's allowed. However, you can still carve out a part of each day that is sacred, different from the rest of your day on where screens may have encroached.
Let's say 7pm to 9pm every day is your screen-free time. During these hours, you can read a book, go for a walk, or you call someone on the phone so you are not using a screen, or sit with someone you love and talk, have a meal... I'm not suggesting that you should be screen-free for 20 hours of a day – that's unrealistic for a lot of us now, but at least try to preserve some of the humanity that comes from being screen-free.
And if it feels good, maybe on the weekend, you can make it 6, 7 hours, which is what I started to do. For instance, from 9am to 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays, I try very hard not to use my screens. Recognizing that I couldn't do that during the week, I have more discretion during the weekend.
Q: Are there any more strategies for those who want to limit their screen time?
A: The best way to deal with this is very old-fashioned: Take some of the days, put the phone as far away as possible. Some of the smartest people I know have a little drawer they put the phone in for 4-8 hours a day and lock it with a key, and they try to lose the key. I promise if the phone isn't near you, and if you do that mindfully, you will use your phone less. It almost sounds too basic to be valuable, but it's the single most effective tool we have: Just keep distance.
Q: So the key is to really take the value of what screen time can offer us?
A: Yes. Every minute that I'm on a screen, I can ask myself: Is there something better I could be doing with this time? If you are tired at the end of a long day, you just want to veg and sit on your bed and scroll the phone, that's probably fine – it's not the end of the world. But if it's happening for hours and hours, it becomes problematic.
It's just a question of asking yourself how mindful it is what you're doing now. If it's intentional – you just want to reward yourself for the long day that you just had, you pick up your screen and watch one episode or two of your favorite TV show.
And if this is what you said before you started it, and if this is exactly what you did, that's very different from being carried away and saying, "What have I done! I have work to do!" It's about what your mind does in that process.
Q: Sometimes I pick up my phone to exercise on mindfulness or learn to paint, but instead I play a game. How can we resist temptations and distractions?
A: One thing about these devices is that everything is on there. Instagram is only one icon over the mindfulness app. The best you can do is rearrange your apps: Some people put apps like Instagram, games, or Twitter four screens back, making them very hard to reach, and you don't stumble on them. All the utilities, the things that are good for you go on page one. It's not intuitive either, since usually you make things as easy as possible in your life.
Q: It's like the concept of "propinquity" that you brought up in one of your talks?
A: Yes. Propinquity is the old concept in psychology. It means that what is closer to you in the world has a bigger effect on your experience of the world. It's like when you feel lazier after spending time with people who are lazy, you are mirroring what others do. So if your phone is nearby, you'll become someone who spends a lot of time on it. And if it's far away, you develop more interest than just looking at the screen.