NYU’s Adam Alter discusses his new book, ‘Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked’

When people talk about addiction, the first thing that comes to mind are illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. But in the mobile era, behavioral addiction is much more prevalent and pervasive — and the culprit is the ubiquitous smartphone. Adam Alter, a marketing and psychology professor at New York University, says it’s an addiction by design — and one that’s insidiously hard to break.

In his new book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, he explains how humans are hardwired for addiction and offers suggestions on how to break the habit. He discussed his findings on the [email protected] show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.

Smartphone Addiction
JESHOOTS / Pixabay
Smartphone Addiction

An edited transcript of the conversation follows: 

[email protected]: Part of the title of your book is “keeping us hooked” on technology. It’s a real concern.

Adam Alter: The technology that we consume now is delivered in ways that are very mindful. The companies that produce the devices that bring the technology and bring the information to us are very mindful about what they’re doing. They are trying their best to ensure that we spend a lot of time on their devices. That’s how they make money. It is a business, and they’re very careful about the way they design the tools that deliver content to us.

[email protected]: I would love to say there’s no way this can be an addiction, but I’m starting to see it with my kids and I’m concerned. This is a problem that a lot of families need to consider and not just something to push to the side.

Alter: It’s very important to define addiction when you’re talking about behavioral addiction because it is very different from the typical definition of addiction.

We usually think of addiction as the brain’s or the body’s response to a certain substance. This is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about experiences and behaviors. But what’s interesting is that the body and the brain respond pretty much the same way to these experiences. You see the same release of dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good. And you see the same behavioral responses.

“You see the same release of dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good.”

If you’re told you aren’t allowed to use your phone for the next week, for most people that produces anxiety. There was an interesting study done where teenagers were given a choice: You can either break a bone in your body or you can break your phone. There are two things that are funny about the response.

A total of 46% of people prefer a broken bone to a broken phone. But even the people who say they’d prefer a broken phone, when you watch them make the decision, it’s not like a snap decision. They agonize and start to think about all the things that could go wrong and what happens if I don’t have my phone. A lot of them say, “At least when I’m recovering from the broken bone, I have the phone to comfort me.” This really is an addiction. It’s pretty extreme.

[email protected]: What has shifted so much from being willing to deal with a broken bone over being worried about losing a phone for a few hours?

Alter: The biggest thing, especially for younger people, is that phones are the way that they communicate with others. It’s basically the backbone on their social lives. Without a phone you lose contact with people, which for humans is one of the worst things that can happen. We would rather have physical pain than social pain and being ostracized, ignored or left out. For a lot of people, the idea of not having a phone is the idea of being out of communication. That’s the biggest thing.

But there are other things, too. When you think about phones, the thrill you get when you check whether you have a text message or when you hear the ding of a text message, or when you check how many likes you have on an Instagram post or whatever — all of that is unpredictable. But when it works for you, when you get a lot of likes, a lot of shares, a lot of retweets and so on, that feels really good. Being deprived of that for a week, for a lot of people, is very unpleasant.

“If you’re told you aren’t allowed to use your phone for the next week, for most people that produces anxiety.”

[email protected]: There was a national day of unplugging in March. That is a great idea, but how much of an impact could it really have?

Alter: What this is designed to do is give them a day where they have an excuse to unplug and to see how great that can be, because we have forgotten [what it’s like]. We now assume that the only way to live is with this tech surrounding us constantly. One of the things I advocate is that people spend three or four hours every day in a tech-free period. Maybe 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., your phone is in a drawer far away. You interact with people or with nature or whatever else you want to do.

[email protected]: You’re a dad of a young boy and getting ready to have a second child, so your kids are literally born into this mobile era. How much of a challenge is it now for parents to change the thought process about this?

Alter: It’s a massive challenge. It’s a bigger challenge than I think it’s ever been. The kids now who were born into the iPhone and iPad eras are 10, and any child who’s younger [also started out in the mobile era]. … They don’t know that there is an alternative. For those of us who are older, we have a sense of what could exist out there, what it’s like to have a face-to-face conversation. For a lot of these younger kids, we have no idea what their lives will be like when they’re teenagers and adults. Because they’ll have grown up in this kind of soup that involves all these things all the time, they won’t know what the alternative is. It won’t appeal to them. And it won’t even be a viable alternative because their whole lives will revolve around tech.

[email protected]: But there’s also the concern about the changing scope of having face-to-face conversations. The concern is that it may never come back.

Alter: At least we’re nostalgic for that. If you’re nostalgic for something, you strive for it. We might try for the kind of contact we used to have with people. If you have a child who’s never experienced that, there’s nothing to be nostalgic for. It just seems like part of an era that’s long past, part of the olden days. Those kids are not going to have that same pang. And that’s the concern, that it needs to be built back into the culture otherwise these kids

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