The Highs And Lows Of Digital Drug Addiction | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Morning Shift

The Highs And Lows Of Digital Drug Addiction

From desktop computers to smartphones, technology is everywhere. The easy access to email and social media has led some people to become addicted to technology -- and it’s not just adults to are getting hooked.

Psychologist Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked talked to Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about technology addiction and how to know if you’ve crossed that line.

Tony Sarabia: How does tech addiction differ from substance addiction?

Adam Alter: In the last 20 years or so, we’ve seen a rise in a kind of addiction that doesn’t involve substances -- behavioral addiction. Behavioral addiction is any behavior that you engage in compulsively that feels good in the short term, but in the long term has at least one bad consequence for you. Gambling was the early example; a perfect storm of flashing lights and a jackpot. Turns out that a lot of the experiences we have on our mobile devices are very similar in a lot of ways.

Sarabia: How has digital addiction impacted empathy in young people?

Alter: The honest answer is we really don’t know. And part of the reason why we don’t know is because the iPad is only seven-years-old and the iPhone is only 10 years-old, so we’re looking at very young kids still who were born into this era. “Kids of today don’t do things I used to do,” is a popular saying, but it seems, based on interviews, that kids pick up the habits of their parents. And the parents pick it up from them -- it’s happening both ways.

What’s interesting is that kids will engage in what developmental psychologists call “parallel play.” That’s when kids are in the same room but don’t really engage with each other. It’s now an epidemic among adults as well. You’ll be at a table and no one is looking at you all. They’re on their phones.

One of the most frightening ideas centers around when children learn to pick up social cues and learn to interact with people in the “real” world. For example, if I’m saying something horrible to someone, it’s very important that as a child I get rapid feedback -- tears, unhappiness etc. -- because if I see that I may not want to do it again. If children are mainly interacting with screens during that critical early period, they don’t develop that faculty … and it’s not clear that they’ll be able to adapt. But we don’t know how children of today will be in the future. They’re only 10 at the moment.

Sarabia: Where is the pressure coming from?

Alter: Big companies. I think people who work there are decent people and don’t want to harm others, but we should understand what it’s doing to us, why it’s harmful and demand companies look into how they drive compulsive use.

Basically, a lot of tech experts tell you the virtues of their products but what they do privately is quite different. Steve Jobs was the classic example. He obviously thought the iPad was a miraculous device but when asked four years after the iPad’s release how his kids liked it, he said they’d actually never used it and that they don’t bring it into the home. There’s also a school in the Bay Area that doesn’t allow any tech. Seventy-five percent of the students at this school have parents who are Silicon Valley executives.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click play above to listen to the entire interview.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.