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Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone?

Oscar Wong
Getty Images

A friend of mine, a professor at a university in Canada, confided to me a few days ago that she thinks she might be addicted to email.

She feels compelled to check her email all the time. And she feels bad about it. She experiences anxiety if she doesn't check, and anxiety if she does. Email gets in the way of her productivity at work and makes her feel distracted from family when she is at home.

Yup, sounds like addiction to me.

Behavioral addiction, especially to the new technologies so prevalent today, is the topic of Adam Alter's book Irresistible. I couldn't resist reading his book. Addiction is a topic I return to again and again here at 13.7. It's such an important topic, not only because it affects so many of us (according to Alter, about 41 percent have suffered from addiction in the past year) — but also because it is such an interesting point of intersection of moral and political and medical and social problems. I've also got kids — a child, a tween, and a teen — and I see every day the power of the screen in shaping their lives.

Alter gets a lot right. He avoids the silly reductionism of "addiction is a disease of the brain." The brain is a part of the story, of course. But addiction is much more complicated than that. Addictions face backward in the sense that they are learned strategies for coping with real life problems, anxieties, traumas and vacancies. As author Maia Szalavitz argues, they are learned and they are also, in a way, learning disabilities. (Alter discusses Szalavitz in the book.) But they also face outward to the situations and contexts and "behavioral architectures" of a person's life.

The reason 95 percent of the war veterans who got hooked on heroin when they were in Vietnam managed to simply give up heroin when they got home is that their addictions were, very truly, products of a particular environmental situation (stress of war, boredom, easy access to a cheap supply, etc). Coming home meant getting away from all that.

Now part of what is so special about social media and all the new media devices and systems is that they have become, basically, mandatory. You can't go home and leave them behind. They are everywhere. My friend can't be a professor who doesn't read her email. And given that she carries the whole Internet around in her pocket, she carries her triggers with her. Nor can children opt out of social media. The social world of children has migrated onto social media. There is no opting out of a new reality.

But there's another dimension here that Alter illuminates. Video games, social media, gambling and pornography sites, but also wearable devices for keeping track of your fitness, these are designed, and they are designed precisely to fascinate and capture — to get you and keep you hooked. Games use, as Alter explains, sonic and visual feedback ("juice"), goals and gradations, challenges and cliffhangers, to lure you and keep you there.

By far, the most powerful device for entrapping us is the social dimension. Hot or Not? was an Internet sensation before Facebook because not only did it let you judge other people's looks, but it let you compare your judgments with those of others — and also to submit your own photo for evaluation. Facebook and Instagram are so indispensable, and games like World of Warcraft, so difficult to put on pause, because of their social character.

Not that all gamers aim at getting their users hooked. The video game world is a large and diverse one, and Alter explains that some hugely influential designers have taken their games off the market because of how easily they can lead to suffering and abuse. They are not all in it for the money.

The book doesn't really help answer How much is too much? According to Alter, most people use their smartphones way more than they think they do; and they're using them a lot (one to four hours a day).

There are, I would propose, two criteria for differentiating between the 21st-century's integration of technology into the fabric of our lives and behavioral addiction to new technologies. The first is whether the devices are crowding out the rest of our lives. Are they deforming the ability of children, for example, to understand each other and feel empathy, as Louis CK warns (quoted by Alter)? The second is whether our new techno-behaviors are making us feel bad, as with my friend in Canada. My kids use their phones a lot. I worry about this, but when I apply these two criteria, I have to say they're not addicted. They depend on their phones the way they depend on their shoes. And I've never had the sense that they are compelled to use their phones.

They might feel a bit compelled to keep in touch with others, but I felt that way, too, when I was their age.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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