The digital addiction industry

“Facebook is not just injurious to health, it's now a full-on humanitarian crisis.”

Abhijit Naskar, Handcrafted Humanity: 100 Sonnets For A Blunderful World


Thank you for joining me for blog 23 highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.


Today's blog is the second about Dopamine. Today we are talking about how the smartest minds are working on ways to make you look at your phone so they can sell you product or advertise to you.


Dopamine is the hormone of addiction too, and there is a lot of money to be made in addiction. More money is made in addiction than helping you maintain good health and make good decisions e.g. saving for the future. The reason there is so much money in addiction is we can be 'gamed' to trade off a feel-good reward now at the expense of long-term sensible decision-making.


Today I am going to focus on digital addiction (the irony is not lost on me that i'm doing this on social media). Junk food and drugs are old news. We know that the highly processed and targeted production of junk food, is extremely more-ish and as a result people cannot refuse themselves that huge dopamine hit they receive from it. We also know that nicotine, alcohol, opioids and other drugs have highly addictive properties and again this is because they have much higher dopamine hits than you could achieve through natural highs. Digital addiction is different though, because the cost is not your health or inhibitions, but your time and attention.


What is digital addiction?


Simply put, digital addiction is spending more time on your phone or gaming device than you think is good for you. The signs of digital addiction are all around us:

1) 73% of people experience anxiety when they misplace their phone

2) Adults spend an average of 2-4hours per day tapping, typing or swiping on their phones touching our devices an average of 2,600 times per day

3) Some people become so entwined with their phone that they sometimes feel their phone vibrating when it's not


The impacts of digital addiction is a misallocation of attention. People cannot work, converse or even rest as effectively as they would without the intrusion of their phone. It has been linked to anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality and increase risk of a car crash.


Last year China introduced new restrictions to limit the time under-18s spent gaming online. The restrictions allowed young gamers to only play on public holidays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 8pm to 9pm. This was to combat excessive use - 1 in 8 children were spending over two hours a day gaming on school days. Adolescent brains are less well formed and children find it harder to avoid temptation as their new brain is still developing.



How to make things addictive


Is his book "hooked" Nir Eyal highlighted the framework that companies use to hook you to apps, games and devices. It turns out that dopamine response is even higher when a reward is variable. Gambling is a clear cut example where sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and the uncertainty causes an enormous release of dopamine.


The increased response with uncertain rewards has been shown in an experiment. Hungry pigeons were put in a box where if they pressed a lever with their beak a food pellet would be released. The pigeons learned the cause and effect relationship pressing the lever and receiving the food when they were hungry. In the next part of the experiment the lever would only release a food pellet with a random number of taps. Rather than being dissuaded from pressing the lever, the pigeons pressed the lever a lot more. Adding variability made them want to tap the lever for a dopamine hit.


For many people, whilst they might be losing money overall, they continue to go casinos, because there are patches of winning and losing. Casinos are also generous with food and drink to keep you there, the more you play they higher probability the house takes your hard-earned cash. Slot machines have been tuned over the year to have just enough of a payout that people can lose money slowly with some peaks and troughs. They are so addictive that slot machines can let you be up sometimes, knowing that on average people will keep playing until they have lost some money.


The digital addiction industry adds factors to hook you too. With gaming, it's easy to see that as long as the game is just hard enough to be a challenge but not so hard that it makes you want to switch off and they keep throwing in random features or allowing you to get various upgrades you will experience novelty and keep playing.


Apps have a similar business model. They make it easy and interesting to get access to lots of variable information e.g. what your friends or colleagues are up to, they continually provide notifications (and find more and more reasons to notify you of things). When your phone buzzes, the curiosity of what the notification might be is often enough to look at your phone. Once you have seen the notification whether a connection request, birthday reminder, message, like, comment or update, you are now kept interested by a feed of things that might pique your attention. The apps also lock you in by creating huge switching costs. After having spent years having people connect with you, if you wanted to move to another platform you would have to start from scratch.


Social media companies generally make most of their money from advertising. So by spending time on 'free' social media we are giving up focus and time and inviting ourselves to be manipulated. The cherry on top is the way they curate the timelines means you will be bathed in comments of people that agree with you or are even more extreme in your viewpoint. As we have uncovered in earlier blogs, we enjoy confirmation of our views and dislike challenges to them.


How can we manage technology?


I've not concluded fully on how to combat it, but here are a few of the best tactics I have come across


1) Turn off notifications to the greatest extent possible

2) Have times during the day where you just do not check your phone

3) Ask yourself frequently "Is this really worth my time?"


So what?


How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:


1) Dopamine is involved in addiction


2) Digital addiction is common and is a feature not a flaw of apps and games


3) Eliminating notifications, having no phone periods and challenging yourself whilst on the device will help you regain your attention.


Thank you for joining. Next week is about Oxytocin - the love hormone.