The internet is so great, isn’t it? It’s hit, after hit, after hit of quality visuals, stories and encounters. Or is it? Cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken is here to remind us of fading affect bias, which is where negative emotion associated with unpleasant memories fade much faster than positive experiences. This is why gamblers are always so quick to talk about how much they’ve won over the years, with no mention (or memory) of what they’ve lost.
According to Aiken, the internet is a giant slot machine, and all the average and boring material we scroll past is negated by that one incredible piece of news, that high feeling when you find a belly-aching funny video, making the search worthwhile. Already you’re getting hyped up for the next great find in the sea of hit and miss. The average person checks their cell phone 200 times per day. That’s an astounding figure, and it sounds an awful lot like an addiction, but Aiken is reluctant to label it that way, because the treatment that usually works for addiction – abstinence – will never work for the internet. We rely on technology for our jobs, relationships, and basic needs. It’s here to stay. So how do we balance our days so that we aren’t servants to the the technology that designed to serve us?
Aiken identifies this compulsive checking as a maladaptive behavior, and the good news about that is it’s a pattern that can be broken – just like you can resist scratching a mosquito bite with enough focus, or can slow your breathing when you’re overcome with nerves, with some awareness and intention, you can put your phone away for the duration of a film without opening your notifications. As an experiment, count for one day to see how many times you go to check your phone, and actively try to reduce it.
Mary Aiken's most recent book is The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online.
Mary Aiken: Do you know that the average person checks their cell phone 200 times a day. And when actually they come home from work cell phone checking increases. So why is that? People talk about internet addiction. Let me explain the science behind it. Very bold ratio and intermittent reinforcement aspects of technology. What does that mean? It means that technology and the internet particularly is like a giant slot machine. Every so often you hit something great. You find a great link, a great website. Every so often you get a brilliant email praise from your boss. Or that text that you’ve been waiting for. And that is far more addictive than if every piece of communication was positive or if every piece was negative. So technology can actually target our developmental Achilles heel. It can elicit negative behavior. People call it internet addiction. I’m not somebody who believes in internet addiction. Why? You cannot be addicted to air. You cannot be addicted to water. Technology is here to stay.
You would not be able to live or get a job or survive without at some stage engaging with technology. I’m a cyberpsychologist. I couldn’t do my job without access to the internet. So the thing is it’s to learn to modify our behavior. Addiction applies an abstinence model. You cannot in this day and age abstain from technology. So I prefer to think of it in terms of adoptive behavior. Technology is a blip in terms of an anthropological evolutionary spectrum and it has happened so quick that we as humans are struggling to keep up with what it offers and how our behavior is evolving. And the negative behaviors that we see at the moment I like to think of them as being maladaptive behaviors or cyber maladaptive behaviors. And the good news about that is that you can do something. Just like learning to stop biting your nails when you’re nervous you can learn to control your use of technology. Technology is here to serve us, not for us to become a slave to it.