This summer, Colin Finlay deleted all social media apps on his phone.
“Trump’s tweets pissed me off, friends’ snaps became annoying and redundant, but worst of all, I was constantly checking for any sort of sign from my ex,” said Finlay, 20, who entered his junior year at the University of Wyoming this fall. “I would just end up looking at old pictures and becoming very remorseful,” he said.
Freed from those reminders, his breakup pain wore off. But with his app-less phone, he noticed that his friends were too glued to theirs—and he felt a different pain. “They’re pulling their phones out as soon as there’s a lull in the conversation, and now I’m stuck just watching these guys scrolling on their phones,” he said. In the past he’d have been scrolling too. “It’s kinda sad.”
“Tech addiction was a huge theme for my summer,” he said.
Teens are on the frontlines, and they’re complaining: in a new report 54% of the respondent teens said they’re distracted by social media when they should be with their present company, compared to 44% in 2012. Forty-two percent said that it is taking time that they could be spending with friends in person, up from 34%. And only 39% said that their favorite way of communicating is in person, compared to 49% in 2012.
Industry insiders, engineers and executives at Google and Facebook who know the power of their own inventions, are taking measures to protect themselves from temptation, Eric Geissinger, author of Gamer Nation, told me.
Like Finlay, they’re deleting their social media accounts. Some are switching from smart phones to flip phones.
Short of that, you can to limit access, Geissinger suggested. “Put a timer on your router, or unplug it. Put all phones in a lockbox after 6pm,” he said.
Bottom line: “You can’t depend upon willpower,” he said. The technology is working against you.
Even if your phone time doesn’t feel damaging, it could be devouring your day. The change in our habits is most notable among students.
The average American 12th grader reported spending six hours a day texting, on social media, or otherwise scrolling online not for a job or schoolwork, according to an analysis of 2016 data by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.
As tech time has gone up, teen activities like reading for fun and even going to the movies have dropped dramatically.
In 1980, two-thirds of 12th graders read books, magazines or newspapers for fun every day.
Now one in three say they didn’t read a single book not for school in the last year. And only 16 percent read daily for fun.
At the same time, SAT reading scores have fallen as low as they’ve been since 1972, Twenge, points out.
“Something that consumes 20 hours of your weekend [may not] be corrupting your brain or soul but it is certainly taking up 20 hours of time which isn’t being used to do… pretty much anything else,” Geissinger said.
Is tech really addictive, though? The idea that an activity can be addictive—like alcohol and nicotine–is recognized in the current manual of official psychiatric disorders, the DSM-5, which includes gambling.
When it comes to tech use, heavy gaming is most likely to fit the definition of an addiction that interferes with your life significantly.
Teens may be most in danger because their brains are rapidly developing.
About 10 percent of eighth-graders spent at least 40 hours a week gaming, according to the Twenge study.
In an appendix to the DSM-5, the authors identified “Internet Gaming Disorder” as worthy of more study.
And in June, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to an updated version of its lists of ailments.
How might a game hook you? In people with addictions, certain triggers—the logo of your favorite brand of whisky, for example—can set off cravings.
With a video game, you get a shot of dopamine when you reach a goal, explained Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in a 2017 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It is exactly the same circuitry that gets involved,” as with an addictive substance, she said. You learn to crave that feeling and associate it with the game experience. The unpredictability of the rewards intensifies your craving.
An early, 2011, brain scan study of 14-year olds found that frequent gamers had more gray matter in a particular brain area, a change seen in addicted gamblers.
Lonely boys with ADHD who game heavily may be at most risk of a disorder that interferes with their lives, research suggests. The risk of addiction may be growing as video game-makers use increasingly sophisticated strategies to attract and keep our attention. In 2017, people spent more money on games than on movies, both in theaters and at home.
Another big part of the problem: games are increasingly designed to keep us playing, spending money as we go along rather than up-front. In this year’s new Harry Potter game, for example, you either pay up, or let your avatar hang on a spooky black screen getting strangled.
One couple in South Korea pleaded guilty to negligent homicide after the death of their infant girl.
The couple was playing Prius Online, a fantasy game that allowed them to raise an online girl with magic powers.
You can change your own habits. Like Finlay—and those Silicon Valley executives—some people are getting the message through their experience of tech addiction in themselves and others.
Sara*, 37, also changed her phone habits after a bad breakup.
Sara thought Peter* would make a great father. “It was the first time I ever thought I’d met ‘the one,’” she said. “He was generous, kind, and at first, we had a lot of fun.” Except for his phone addiction. Peter would text, check into chat rooms and monitor the news, at the worst moments.
“Other guys would wake up and have their coffee and talk to me before they checked their phone. He would roll over and check it. My first reaction was that he was cheating on me. So I asked him, and he was good about it. He showed me that he was talking to friends. We made a rule that he wouldn’t check his phone while we were in bed,” she said.
Although Peter abided by that rule, it didn’t really help. If they were out to dinner, “the minute I stood up to go to the bathroom, he’d grab the phone,” Sara said. “There were times I had to pee, and I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want him to check his phone.” At dinners with her friends, he’d check his phone so often they noticed and remarked on it to her later.
Eventually their Sundays together became an ordeal. “I’d be miserable all day,” she said.
Sara added: “I’ve never been jealous. I’ve never been insecure. I turned into someone I never want to meet again for 30 seconds. I was screaming, swearing. It all stemmed from me feeling that he wasn’t present in the relationship, that I’d never be enough for him.”
“When I became mindful of the way his phone habits made me feel, I cut down on my phone use 80 percent,” she said.
The bottom line: Tech addiction doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts other people. This summer I saw two young women in a tandem kayak, not moving. I kayaked over and asked, “Do you need help?”
A girl in the back of the kayak never looked up from her phone. She was playing a game. The girl in the front looked at me and shrugged.
“She needs you to get the boat moving,” I said. Now the girl in the back looked up at me, grimaced, and went back to her phone.
By the way, taking your phone into a kayak is a bad idea: It’ll get wet. The kayak service had a free locker service where she could have left her phone.
But she’d rather risk drowning it and losing a friend.
*the names have been changed for privacy.