Glued to our screens, and trying to get unstuck
Screenslaver interrupts this program for an important announcement.
“You don’t talk; you watch talk shows. You don’t play games; you watch game shows. Travel, relationships, risk: Every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat and participate in life.”
Screenslaver — if you haven’t seen the summer blockbuster “Incredibles 2” — is the villain of the film who berates the public for its dependence on both screens and superheroes. The movie is set in the 1960s, but how much different is its world of technology overuse from our own? If anything, it’s only gotten worse, research shows.
An addiction is born
Caitlin Jaird, 28, is a self-described technology addict, and she can trace her addiction to 2000. That was the year she discovered the now-defunct text messaging tool AIM and the social media platform MySpace, once the largest in the world.
That time in her life was especially chaotic: Her father was working at night and sleeping during the day. Weekends were especially tricky. She tiptoed around the house so as not to wake her dad.
“It was almost like social media was my only escape,” she said. “In that world, everyone was happy, interesting and successful.”
Two years later, her parents announced that they were getting a divorce, and Jaird said she clung to the Internet as her safety net.
By the time she left home for college in 2008, MySpace had fizzled out and been replaced by the social media site Facebook.
Nowadays, she’s mostly on Facebook. And she has lots of “friends” joining her. According to the Pew Research Center, 26% of American adults say they go online “almost constantly.”
Where people choose to spend their time online varies significantly, but gaming and social media are the frontrunners.
Almost half of all Americans have ever played a video game, according to Pew survey data. Likewise, 68% of US adults are Facebook users. Newer forms of social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat, have taken off with younger Americans.
An increasingly online population isn’t only a domestic trend, either. Facebook has 2.2 billion monthly active users and 1.45 billion daily active users around the world, as of March 31. By comparison, China, the most populous country in the world, has a citizenry of about 1.4 billion.
Technology overuse has emerged as a modern disease and is beginning to be classified as such: Recently, the World Health Organization classified gaming disorder as a mental health condition.
Beyond that, experts say technology overuse has the potential to stunt growth and development of social skills, mask mental illness and isolate us in an increasingly connected world.
Coping with technology
Mike Bishop sees a pattern in kids age 10 to 18 who attend his summer camp, Summerland, the first summer camp for kids with technology overuse habits. At first, the kids are anxious without their phones, computers and other devices, and that gives way to grumpiness, which in turn gives way to resentment. Bishop, the director of Summerland, calls these “withdrawal effects” and said they tend to peak after roughly a week without technology.
Technology overuse manifests in two separate but overlapping ways at Summerland, which has locations in California and North Carolina. Typically, the girls who attend the camp will overuse or misuse social media, while the boys will overuse video games.
These technology habits come at an important point in teens’ social development, when they should be interacting face-to-face instead of behind screens, Bishop said.
“What we tend to see at our program is kids that have essentially stopped growing socially, so we’ll have campers in a 15-year-old body that act like 12-year-olds.”
After the initial period of withdrawal, though, Bishop and his staff often experience a breakthrough with the kids, and they discover conditions that may be fueling their technology habit, like social anxiety. Often, Bishop says, teens use technology as a coping mechanism without addressing their underlying struggles.
And it’s not just teens: Cam Adair, the founder of Game Quitters, the largest support community for people with video game addictions, said roughly half of the group’s tens of thousands of members meet the criteria for anxiety, depression or a mood disorder.
Adair is no stranger to the intersection between technology and mental illness. He dropped out of high school, playing up to 16 hours of video games a day in his parents’ basement and struggling with depression and anxiety while his friends attended college.
“Eventually, I wrote a suicide note, and that’s when I decided to make a change,” he said.
He was inspired to found Game Quitters after a blog post he wrote about his experience attracted attention from thousands of people who shared similar stories.
Adair says that 90% of Game Quitters’ members are male and that many use gaming as more than just a coping mechanism.
“To just dismiss gaming as ‘well, everyone’s just gaming because they’re depressed and anxious’ completely negates the fact that so many of them are gaming because it’s an opportunity to feel a new sense of identity, it’s an opportunity to feel measurable progress in life; it’s a way that they get instant gratification, and the desire to escape is only one of a multitude of reasons why they play,” he said.
The game-maker’s playbook
Games and apps are designed to get you hooked, said Gabe Zichermann, a designer, author and consultant on gamification (simply put, a set of principles for making something more fun and engaging by adding game-like components). He knows this because for the better part of the past decade, he helped to make them that way.
Many of these design principles originated in video games and were not necessarily designed to hook people on technology, though some take pages from the gambling industry’s playbook, he said. Here are a few common techniques, according to him and other experts:
Hook loops: A hook loop draws users back to a platform with notifications that are “fully reinforcing,” Zichermann said, adding that they’re the most common tactic used by social media companies.
As an example, think of a photo-sharing app like Instagram. After you post a new image to the social media platform, the app may send you a notification if someone likes or comments on it. Tapping that notification will take you back to the platform, where you’re encouraged to provide an additional comment or view the profile of the person who liked or comment on your post. This begins a new cycle of engagement with the product, Zichermann said.
Loot boxes: A loot box is a kind of mystery box that you can purchase with either in-app currency or real money. Its contents could range from a very basic item to a rare one, and the only way to find out is to open it. Adair says this model is strikingly similar to gambling-like designs.
“We know from gambling research that when it comes to slot machines and things like that, the brain is firing with the excitement of the potential of the win, not even necessarily of the win itself, and so a loot box plays on that very strongly,” he said.
Other techniques to keep users online can arise from the data that apps collect from you as you use them, whether it’s the number of steps you take in a day or your preference of puppy videos to kitten ones.
Behavior modification: Apps commonly use rewards or incentives to modify users’ behavior, Zichermann said, such as streaks in Snapchat or loyalty points and badges for online marketplaces.
You might also see behavior modification techniques in health and fitness tracking apps, according to Amy Jo Kim, an author and game designer whose credits include work on eBay and Netflix. For example, the Fitbit app, designed to accompany the eponymous wearable fitness device, lets users earn badges for hitting milestones or goals, which they then can share via social media.
“With regard to gamification and behavior modification with tracking and rewards, this is not a new problem,” she said. “The gambling industry deals with this, and that’s why there are laws around games of chance, and that’s why there are constraints around it.”
Attention testing: Attention testing is a way social media platforms can track and maximize a user’s time spent logged onto their sites.
We know that Facebook and other apps track our data, even when we’re not using them. Using this data to then modify our behavior is an ethical question at the forefront of the technology industry, Kim said.
People don’t want to pay for content, and so attention testing arose as a way to increase ad revenue, Zichermann said. The Facebook algorithm is a good example, he said. It runs tests on individual users to see how long they might stop on a particular post in their news feeds — what they like and comment, and what times of day they engage with the platform. All of this information can then inform the algorithm how to personalize feeds to increase engagement.
“The Facebook algorithm, its sole purpose is to figure what kind of content will get you to keep you scrolling, that’s what it’s designed to do, and it’s incredibly effective,” Zichermann said.
Solutions in regulating and self-regulating
A few months ago, Jaird’s father took his own life. She said his wife told her he had spent his last days in bed on his phone. His death forced her to reckon with both his technology use and her own, she said.
“Remembering the man who was never really for technology and then holding his Samsung Galaxy phone after he passed was surreal,” Jaird said. “I can’t say the phone was the root of his demise, but I can certainly tell how it affects me.”
Recently, Jaird downloaded Onward, an app Zichermann developed to help individuals limit the time they spend using technology. Zichermann, who connected Jaird with CNN, can show users a breakdown of the time they spend on their phone and block apps or websites. She said she isn’t anxiously checking her phone for notifications as much as she used to, and she’s turned off notifications for Facebook, per Onward’s advice.
Kim said that for some, apps like these — including Apple’s recently announced Screen Time app, available in beta form — can be helpful and that self-regulation and media literacy are vital to have in this day and age.
“We’re living in an age where we need to be our own advocates,” she said.
Many of her clients now wrestle with creating compelling experiences in their products when it is much easier to “throw some known addictive mechanics on top of something,” she said.
It’s drawing the attention of governments, too. Four bills introduced to Hawaii’s legislature in February that would have regulated loot boxes did not advance after failing to meet deadlines. But in April, Belgium declared that loot boxes are in violation of gambling legislation after investigating their use in a controversial Star Wars video game.
The problem with this kind of legislation, Kim said, is that video game companies are evolving around it and employing techniques different enough from loot boxes, but with similar effects.
Zichermann said that he thinks the technology industry will have to be regulated but that regulation must be written in an elastic way to compensate for a field that can adapt rapidly.
Jaird expressed hope that she will be able to cut back on how often she uses technology and encourage others to do so, too.
“The more people step back from technology, the less lonely of a world it will be for the people who already have,” she said.