50% of us are now digital addicts: How to spot the warning signs & regain your focus
It’s time we talked about our common addiction. The one that eats into our work day and social life, stealing countless and seemingly-harmless moments when in reality they take us away from what really matters.
I’m talking about the hooks and habits built into our daily digital lives. They exist in platforms such as LinkedIn (especially since the redesign), Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and are baked into just about every aspect of the web. They’re the reason we visit social networks the moment boredom hits, check our emails more times than we should, lose ourselves in entire box sets at a time and constantly feel too busy.
Some of these tricks are made to distract. Others to satisfy our desire to be noticed or get ahead in life.
Some give us a sense of freedom. Many actually deepen our dependence on a platform and weaken our willpower.
Some are technology-induced addictions. Others are of our own making.
I’ve fallen for them all. We all have.
So let’s take a look at some of the habit-forming tricks of the trade and shine light on the illusion of progress they give. We’ll also explore the part of our brains that crave these hits and how our artificial appetite for them is engineered.
Finally, let’s see if we can offer some ideas for what the way out might be. I share some of the changes that have helped me and how you can make an escape plan of your own. Fear not, there is life beyond social media and mobile phone addiction.
So, where do we start?
How about where it all began: computer games.
It’s almost impossible to dip in and out of today’s video games. They’re made for escapism and feature entire worlds to get lost in. My own never-ending quest for new levels, superpowers and opponents fuelled a number of lost summers of my youth to Mario, Sonic and Championship Manager. These regular cliffhangers and milestones are what keep up the suspense and enjoyment, even many years later.
It’s unsurprising that modern gaming have embraced these same hooks, only making them more sophisticated. We now have ‘energy systems’ (essentially portion control, limiting the pace you play at so you don’t burn through your initial enthusiasm too quickly), remote player-to-player and expansion packs (to create endless possibilities and opponents), monetisation (to maximise the LTV of every player) and accelerated character progression, free upgrades for inviting friends, social leaderboards (to keep the competition up), paid gifting and queue jumping, and many, many more clever game mechanics. Even the simplest of games such as Angry Birds uses them to get players addicted and happily parting with their time and money. For EA sports games these downloadable extras now amount to a $800m per year bonus.
Much of this won’t come as a revelation. It’s the extent to which our everyday interactions and online behaviours are managed by these same tricks that will shock. It goes under the name of user engagement and growth hacking.
Creating a generation of overworked smartphone addicts
It’s at this point that I’d like to introduce you to Nir Eyal’s excellent book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
A must-read for anybody building or wanting to build a scalable app or service, Hooked first opened my eyes to the power of UX and product design.
The world is caught in an always-on trance. We touch our phones 2,617 times a day. The most addicted amongst us do so 5,427 times a day. That equates to 3 out of every 24 hours - at least half of which is at work. Our attention is beckoned by sight, sounds and haptics; be it an app notification, the ping of a new email arriving, or the vibration of a ‘like’. And those figures don’t include voice controls. Individually they’re pretty innocuous. Collectively they steal hours of our day, cause us to constantly be playing catch-up and distract us either side of that interaction, breaking up our thought process or task. The ‘switch-cost’ of this interruption – the time it takes for your brain to get back to where it was - lasts between 15 to 25 minutes. Now think how many times you look at your mobile phone at work every day!
That time we spend with our screen as observers and participants is taking us away from what’s really important: colleagues, customers, friends, family, life. With the average phone containing anywhere between 27 and 85 apps (depending on who you listen to) it is a non-stop ambush on our attention. Our addictive personalities combined with these well-versed hooks are the reason behind the massive Silicon Valley valuations. As has been said a million times before:
"If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold"
It’s not as if these interruptions always bring good news and pleasantries either. Social networks have been anti-social, full of conflict, disagreement and anger (Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat being the exceptions.) I’m a sucker for remaining loyal to Twitter even though it fails to take action anytime I’ve reported abuse on the platform.
Of course of this addiction builds up incrementally over time otherwise we’d never agree to invest our time and data in the first place. We only really notice it once we reach the point that we’re suddenly always too busy and there’s never enough time for anything.
So what are the main hooks behind the habits?
“Much of this is creating that magical combination of a single action that triggers a dopamine reaction (such as the "like" action in Facebook) directly matched with an action that naturally encourages network effects (like sharing, creating content for other feeds, etc.)”
To borrow from Nir Eyal’s model, these triggers can either be internal (associated with the way we feel, so we ourselves gravitate to those platforms when we’re feeling that way) or external triggers (a push notification, email, a red light on our app, and so on). The anticipation of what might await is irresistible enough for us to stop what we’re doing and click straight away. It’s the same anticipation that has us following Trump’s every move.
From there, we’re served up a variable reward. The lure of mysterious and novel treats positively reinforcing our impatient behavior. If this reward was the same thing, time and time again, it would be predictable and boring. Who knows, it might be a job offer or new friend request. However, it’s more likely someone-in-your-network-but-who-you’ve-never-met’s birthday and you’re left cursing LinkedIn for wasting your time.
So what do these digital hooks look like?
They come in the form of the constant feed of new status updates awaiting you. The views of your profile. The analytics and conversations sparked by your post. The AI recommendations on your ad campaign. The gains in your search ranking. The new photos using your favourite hashtag. Some recommendations for other articles, box sets and books you might be interested in. The thrill of ticking things off your to-do list. The endless scroll of inspirational quotes. Our data now controls us. And marketing mavericks have perfected the art of monetising it.
Even your body is in on the act. The surge of dopamine releases means we’re locked in to a never-ending feedback loop that keeps us coming back for more.
Another incredibly effective trick is the simple ‘read’ timestamp on our messages or endorsements on LinkedIn. We feel compelled to reply or return the favour and we get caught up in a hyperloop of reciprocal actions.
Once you’ve succumbed enough times to these triggers they become impulses. They interrupt our conversations, our work and even our sleep. They are the reason why we need to work beyond our contracted hours and constantly feel guilty for feeling swamped. Don’t believe me? The companies that enforce a strict 40-hour or less week suddenly report magically greater staff productivity and wellbeing.
We should be resisting. But we’re not. If you’re anything like me, once you know how it works you’ll find it fascinating. And if you’re in charge of your own product or service you’re missing a trick if you don’t consider how it can (ethically) work for you.
Of course not all digital hooks and habits are bad. When applied to health and fitness apps and wearables they can push out of our comfort zone, encourage us to go for that PB and motivate greater weight loss. I’m sure there are many more Tech For Good examples but it does seem that digital addiction exists to predominantly serve commercial interests.
How are these digital hooks taking their toll?
Well, apart from being designed to part us with our time and money, these tools of mass distraction are:
Making us lonely. It was only this week that US psychologists claimed social media 'increases loneliness', with its effect doubling every two hours we spend on social media a day. There are multiple theories why but most tend to rest on the opportunity cost of fewer real-world interactions and the broken promise made by social media to make us feel less alone.
Killing our ambition. Our compulsion to react to every buzz or beep causes something called “attention deficit syndrome”. Originally coined to describe the impact of excessive mobile phone use on schoolchildren’s ability to concentrate during class, in the world of work it curbs our longer-term thinking, warps our perspective and limits our goal setting.
Destroying our willpower. Other side effects of our digital addictions include a “weaker tendency to delay gratification”, meaning we focus on short-term morale boosts over meaningful work, and “weaker impulse control.” Any rational person will know we shouldn’t be fighting for scraps of validation the ‘like’, ‘add’ or ‘follow’ brings but they continues to be the immediate currency we all choose to trade in.
Causing more stress. We love to hero worship a workaholic - I've definitely been guilty of this. Working harder, faster, longer is buried deep into start-up culture. But it’s not good for you, which is ultimately not good for business. The reality is they’ll always be someone doing more or someone with more followers or more money in the bank. More is rarely the answer to anything. Our social media addiction is feeding our envy and causing us to feel constantly overworked, overwhelmed and stressed.
A little bit of competition and stress can be good. We use that adrenaline rush to push us to peak performance in sport; a looming deadline to kick us into action and start typing; or a room full of strangers to energise an impassioned speech. A completely stress-free life is a boring one.
Creating new phobias. On top of adding to our stress levels, we’re experiencing new phobias for a new problem. ‘Nomophobia’ describes the fear of being without a mobile phone or decent signal. It might sound trivial but the phobia is said to affect over 50% of us. Colleagues also suffer Nomophobia on our behalf, becoming, agitated or worried when we don’t respond immediately.
Similarly, whilst we think we take back some control by keeping the screen out of sight or switching off push notifications, we’re still feel compelled to check the phone. Called “phantom text syndrome”, the problem is particularly pertinent among younger generations.
Making us bad company. Our digital addiction makes us irritating to be around too. If you’ve ever tried holding a conversation with someone wearing an Apple Watch you’ll know what I mean. It’s not much of a spectator sport.
It’s highly like that we experience all of these things symptoms and side-effects at the same time, as they simultaneously give an impression of control and act as a source of anxiety. And we wonder why we constantly feel like we’re being pulled in many different directions.
What’s the antidote to these digital hooks?
So you’ve decided you’re ready to call time on FOMO and want to know how to stop social media and smartphone addiction.
Sadly there’s no silver bullet or ad-blocker-equivalent but I’m happy to share a few things that work for me. I’d love to hear your advice too.
Work towards something. Whatever your good fight - whether it’s working for a charity that helps the homeless, bringing creative education to every classroom or helping people to be better with money - keep a constant visual reminder in the office and you’ll find your distractions drop. It’ll also make all comparisons with those you currently deem competition redundant. Outside recognition from social media holds zero influence on your success or failure.
Be a better boss. This is the biggest difference you can make. Create a positive culture that better supports your people and promotes a healthy relationship with work hours. Culture-related stress is heightened by the unreasonable expectation to always be logged-in and ready-to-respond, but it hasn’t got to be that way. You’ll need to force some colleagues to disconnect at first, but those that take the leap don’t look back.
Pull the plug. Going cold turkey is an extreme measure but a highly effective one. Disconnect email from your phone. Delete the app (or even better don’t download it in the first place.) Block out certain websites for a fixed period (I use the SelfControl app to do this.) Unsubscribe with Unroll.me. Or even go back to basics with the no-thrills Nokia 3310. Stop letting your devices dictate your day and you’ll soon reap the rewards of your new-found focus.
Take some time out. There’s no shortage of analogue ways to detox and it’s a good excuse to reacquaint ourselves with them. There’s digital ones too. The Calm app has is full of guided meditations for sleep, anxiety, stress and other distractions, whilst Buddify app brings micro-moments of mindfulness to your mobile phone.
Turn off the triggers. Now that you more aware of them it’s relatively easy to scale back or switch off. The key here is to get back to building up momentum. Revisit your push notifications and social settings. Switch ‘notify my network to any changes’ to off. Opt-out of email updates. Mute frivolous updates. Every little helps.
Swap updates for round-ups. I can’t recommend this enough. Via Feedly, I can now get all my news and inspiration in a single dose, rather than trawling through hundreds of Twitter updates. It works both ways too. I now send one newsletter a week rather than multiple posts daily after realising I don’t need to have an opinion on everything. And even if I did, the world probably doesn’t want to hear it.
Buckle down in bursts. Time management hacks arrived long before our digital hooks came into being but they’re making a comeback. The Pomodoro Technique has been resurrected from the 80s to help break down our work into 25-minute intervals separated by short breaks. Big jobs become smaller tasks and we give them our full focus to satisfy our need for completion.
And finally: Help spread digital literacy. It’s our responsibility to educate about the potential pitfalls of social media and smartphone addiction. Once people know what the tricks of the trade are they’ll be better equipped to take back control and fulfill their potential. If all else fails, there are always plenty of jobs for reformed digital addicts.