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.