An addiction machine for our age
By Mark Hurst • June 16, 2023
On this week’s Techtonic I spoke with Jay D., a woman who told a harrowing story of internet addiction. Years ago, she said, internet videos and other screen-based entertainment became a refuge from painful things going on in her life – and then she found that she couldn’t stop watching. (You can listen to the Techtonic episode or see the links and comments on the playlist page.)
Staying up all night to watch videos took a toll on her grades, her relationships, and her physical health. Jay resolved to address the problem. First she tried willpower: writing notes to herself, using “nanny” software, even leaving passwords with friends, with strict instructions not to give her the password unless it was a legitimate reason. But none of these tactics succeeded as she would, within days or hours, figure out ways to regain access to the screen.
Finally, a couple of years ago, she searched online for help and found the ITAA, Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous, a 12-step program modeled after AA. (ITAA’s 12 steps “have been adapted with the permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.,” says the site.) Jay began attending in-person meetings in New York City to meet other people who had dealt with similar problems. As Jay reported in our interview, today she’s experiencing recovery and credits the ITAA with saving her life.
I only recently learned about the ITAA and was happy to hear Jay’s story. (There are others on the ITAA’s Recovery Stories page: one in particular I’d recommend is “Tomas K – The Degenerate World.”) There are different types of internet-based addictions. The ITAA says it addresses “addiction to social media, smartphones, streaming video or audio content, games, news, pornography, dating apps, online research, online shopping, or any other digital activity that becomes compulsive and problematic.”
Hearing stories of recovery is inspiring. People’s lives are turned around by a supportive community and whatever “higher power” people credit with helping them. But in addition to the hopeful feelings I got from speaking to Jay, I also found myself during the interview having a negative reaction. Specifically, I couldn’t shake a thought about the internet platforms that cause so much addiction:
The system is working as designed.
I mean that literally, not in some offhand snarky way. These systems are explicitly and intentionally designed for addiction, because addicted users generate maximal profit – and even those users who aren’t addicted still end up using the system more than they would otherwise.
Hearing my accusation, the companies would surely protest, saying they’re merely trying to foster “engagement.” But the design of their systems shows otherwise. A good example is the autoplay feature on Netflix and YouTube, in which the next video begins without any action from the user. Autoplay is a “dark pattern,” a design feature meant to nudge users into acting in ways that benefit the company, even at the expense of users’ long-term interests. (There are a bunch of examples of dark patterns in the Hall of shame on the Deceptive Patterns website. Creative Good members can access, on our Forum, a long list of resources and news on dark patterns.)
With trillion-dollar (or two-trillion-dollar) companies trying their hardest to hook users and keep them hooked – meaning, to addict them – it’s no surprise that Jay D., and Tomas, and other ITAA members tell stories of becoming painfully addicted to digital platforms. Silicon Valley, the wealthiest and most powerful cartel in the history of the world, has successfully built an addiction machine for our age. And it is working as designed.
The scary thing is that there are countless people out there who haven’t found the ITAA, or some other resource to help them into recovery, and are quietly seeing their lives fall apart – while Silicon Valley tech giants see their valuations go up, and up, and up. Yes, the platforms offer little features here and there to “monitor your screen time,” and nudge people to “take a break.” These are band-aids that do nothing to address the underlying intent of the addiction machine.
The really scary thing is to consider the system’s effects on the most vulnerable population of internet users: kids. From the Facebook Files and other scandals we’ve learned that the tech giants are well aware, from their own internal research, that their products have harmful, even devastating outcomes on younger users. And the companies don’t care. Far from giving up on their addiction-by-design approach, these companies have doubled down, looking for even more ways to lock people up in digital hells of isolation. (For a recent example, see my column last week: Rejecting the Apple Vision Pro.)
But even given the dismal lack of ethics within Big Tech leadership, which we’ve known for awhile, it still feels like we haven’t fully grasped the enormity of the problem we’re dealing with:
We’re running a massive experiment on an entire generation of kids, from birth to age 18, to see what happens when we throw them into the addiction machine.
With few exceptions, toddlers to teenagers in the U.S. are all walking around with Apple or Google smartphones filled with apps designed for the enrichment of globe-spanning corporations. Nearly all of the apps employ a variety of dark patterns to keep kids engaged, or hooked, or addicted. Video games, social media, streaming videos, and porn – all are instantly available to kids, all the time. For the first time ever, we have allowed predatory profit-seekers direct, personal, 24/7 access to our kids, with only occasional guardrails from parents and schools, shielded by what can only be called a paltry response from regulators.
Given these conditions, what do we expect will happen when the addiction machine works as designed?
Just last month the Surgeon General issued a New Advisory About Effects Social Media Use Has on Youth Mental Health (May 23, 2023). Quoting the release:
[T]here is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. “Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”
Jonathan Haidt seems to have come to the same conclusion in his June 6 Atlantic essay: Get Phones Out of Schools Now. Why? “They impede learning, stunt relationships, and lessen belonging. They should be banned.”
If we want to dismantle the addiction machine, banning phones in schools would be a good start. But we’d still need a broader response to address internet addiction in adults. There’s no silver bullet here, but a few good suggestions, at least, appeared in a piece in The Verge by Elizabeth Lopatto called Some things you can do if you’re sick of social media (June 16, 2023). Read a book, go for a walk, spend time with your friends. Whatever you do, try to find some way off of the toxic platforms:
Google search is less usable, social media is more unpleasant, and Amazon is making it harder to find quality goods. If online is getting worse, maybe the easiest thing to do is log off.
As I wrote 16 years ago in Bit Literacy, “let the bits go.” The phrase takes on new meaning when we realize that the addiction machine is never going to change itself. A healthier relationship with tech, as the ITAA proves, might mean simply saying no. All of us, from birth to age 99, would live better if we used Big Tech platforms less. If and when it’s ever possible, we should just walk away.
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Until next time,
Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
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