The Internet Is Heroin and Your Smartphone, the Needle
The advent of portable technology has exploited our reptilian addiction switch like never before.
Adam Alter is an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department.
Adam is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, which examines how features of the world shape our thoughts and feelings beyond our control. He has also written for the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, Huffington Post, and Popular Science, among other publications. Adam has shared his ideas at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and with dozens of companies, including Google, Microsoft, Anheuser Busch, Prudential, and Fidelity, and with several design and ad agencies around the world. He is working on his second book, which asks why so many people today are addicted to so many behaviors, from incessant smart phone and internet usage to video game playing and online shopping.
Adam’s academic research focuses on judgment and decision-making and social psychology, with a particular interest in the sometimes surprising effects of subtle cues in the environment on human cognition and behavior. His research has been published widely in academic journals, and featured in dozens of TV, radio and print outlets around the world.
He received his Bachelor of Science (Honors Class 1, University Medal) in Psychology from the University of New South Wales and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton University, where he held the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Dissertation Fellowship and a Fellowship in the Woodrow Wilson Society of Scholars.
Adam Alter: Behavioral addiction is a lot like substance addiction in a lot of ways, but it's much newer. So substance addiction obviously involves the ingestion of a substance, and in the short-term that feels good, and in the long-term it harms your well being in some respects. It can be physiological, it can be psychological, it can harm your social life, it can cause you to spend too much money, it can have a lot of negative effects on your life. Behavioral addiction is similar; the big difference though is that behavioral addiction does not involve the ingestion of a substance, and it's much newer, it's a much more recent phenomenon.
So substance addiction has been around for a very long time, by some accounts for many thousands of years, but there weren't behaviors around that were compelling enough to rise to the level of addiction until quite recently. And the reason is that, for them to be addictive, basically what has to happen is there's a behavior that you enjoy doing in the short-term that you do compulsively. So you keep returning to it over and over again, but then in the long-term it harms your well-being. And it can, again, harm your well-being in lots of different respects, social, financial, physical, psychological.
And I think the reason why we've got these new forms of addiction, there are two main reasons: The first one is that technology is much more sophisticated and advanced than it was even 20 years ago. You're able to deliver the kinds of rewards that you need for a system to be addictive. So basically what people are looking for is unpredictability and rapid feedback of either rewards (or if it's negative then negative experiences), and you actually need that mix of positive and negative feedback.
Just as, for example, when you post something online, sometimes you're going to get a lot of hits, sometimes you aren’t, and it's that unpredictability that we find so compelling. You need to be able to deliver those rewards really rapidly, and for that you need the Internet with the right kind of bandwidth to be able to deliver those rewards.
The other thing that I think is happened is that companies are much savvier about this. There are employee behavioral experts to tell them how to design their media, how to design the vehicles that deliver those media, smart phones, iPads, smart watches, things like that. And for that reason I think they are delivering products to us that are harder for us to resist. They've got enough features built in that we find to be pretty hard to resist, and then we end up developing addictions to them, and by some counts that applies to about half of the population of the developed world.
So when you're addicted to a screen it's not that the screen itself is something that you can't get enough of, it's what it's providing. I think one of the reasons while we're so addicted to screens or to the content they provide is that they go with us wherever we go. And that's relatively new. And so if you played video games in the '80s or '90s or even the early 2000's they didn't really go wherever you went as much as they do now, especially those games that were tied into the Internet. Those were tied into your PC, you'd play where you were and you didn't really leave with them as much. You had some portable devices, but those were much more primitive.
Today with iPhones you can connect to other people on the go, you always have access to games, you always have access to email, you always have access to the Internet, and you always have access to social media, and so they are great vehicles for providing the hits that you need when you need them.
Basically we tend to develop addictions when we have a psychological need. And we get those whenever we're bored, whenever we're feeling a little bit lonely, whenever we're not really sure what to do with ourselves next, whenever we don't feel particularly efficacious (like we're having an effect on the world that we'd like to be having), those are the moments when you're looking for what some people call the “adult pacifier”. And smart phones tend to be a great adult pacifier because after those moments you turn on your screen, you swipe and you feel relaxed again. That's how people describe the experience.
So they tend to be excellent devices for delivering these small hits that we look for, and social media is a great example. So social media obviously now travels with us. It used to be confined to home computers to a large extent, but that's no longer the case. And people spend about three hours a day on average using their smart phones, which is pretty staggering. That's a huge chunk of the day of the waking hours that we spend when we're not at work. What that means is they're spending a lot of their time returning over and over again to check Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and so on, and they're checking for a number of things. One thing is that these media are bottomless, which means that you're constantly checking for new information; there's always something new to be kept up on. The other thing is if you happen to be a poster of content, you're very curious about getting rapid feedback as to whether people approve of that or they're not particularly interested in it. So a lot of the time what we do is we return over and over again compulsively to see whether we're getting the positive feedback that we seek when we post content.
A lot of what we're doing when we post content is basically testing the social waters, getting a sense of whether people see the world the same way we do, which is very important to us as humans, and also getting a sense of whether they approve of us.
And social approval is really important, but we're even willing to risk negative feedback, because the worst thing that can happen to a human is to be ignored. It's actually far worse to be ostracized or ignored than it is to get negative feedback. So when you put all of that together the idea now that we have access to theoretically billions of people in the world at all times wherever we are makes smart phones addictive. We can always get that feedback that we desire.
It's not your screen you're addicted to — it's just the conduit for your high. NYU professor Adam Alter explains that behavioral addiction is similar to substance addiction: it feels good in the short term, but over time can negatively impact your mental state, social life, financial stability, and physiological wellbeing. There's been a steep takeoff of digital addiction in recent years, with approximately half the developed world now exhibiting addictive tendencies when it comes to the internet. It comes down to portability. The more wireless our devices become, the more our addiction follows us around, and the more we turn to our phones as "adult pacifiers" — just a swipe of your screen is enough to feel relaxed again. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Inequality in wealth, gender, and race grew to unprecedented levels across the world, according to OxFam report.
- A new report by global poverty nonprofit OxFam finds inequality has increased in every country in the world.
- The alarming trend is made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which strained most systems and governments.
- The gap in wealth, race and gender treatment will increase until governments step in with changes.
People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in Brooklyn.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Credit: Oxfam International
A supernova exploded near Earth about 2.5 million years ago, possibly causing an extinction event.
- Researchers from the University of Munich find evidence of a supernova near Earth.
- A star exploded close to our planet about 2.5 million years ago.
- The scientists deduced this by finding unusual concentrations of isotopes, created by a supernova.
This Manganese crust started to form about 20 million years ago. Growing layer by layer, it resulted in minerals precipitated out of seawater. The presence of elevated concentrations of 60 Fe and 56 Mn in layers from 2.5 million years ago hints at a nearby supernova explosion around that time.
Credit: Dominik Koll/ TUM
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
I spoke to 99 big thinkers about what our ‘world after coronavirus’ might look like – this is what I learned
There is no going "back to normal."
Back in March, my colleagues at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University thought that it might be useful to begin thinking about “the day after coronavirus."