The Paradox Of Smartphone Addiction

There have been multiple articles warning about the dangers of tech addiction, from publications like The Washington Post and The Atlantic, that note that smartphone addiction has resulted in higher rates of depression and suicide among teenagers. There have also been alarming behavioral shifts. Children and teenagers these days seem to be less interested in driving or managing money, adulthood continues to be postponed.

The author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products wrote a short response.

He referred to a legal measure that was taken to control how certain tech products could be designed.

Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act, which — beyond its forced acronym — was remarkable for how aggressively it would regulate the design of certain tech products.

“Tech Addiction” Is the New Reefer Madness, Nir Eyal

According to Eyal, the outrage against tech addiction is akin to the Reefer Madness that overtook the US decades ago. Eyal notes that all people need to do is mute the notifications on their phones, and they will stop getting distracted.

The problem, as he sees it, is not that people are becoming addicted to smartphones, but that they are constantly allowing themselves to be distracted.

Who’s right?

First, the postponement of childhood is an observation one writer made after observing generational shifts in behavior for decades. But the problem is that these trends don’t tell us the whole story. For example, if you want to get a good idea of where adulthood is not postponed at all — that is, children are forced to become adults at a much younger age — it’s usually in poor countries. There, children make the jump to adulthood earlier rather than later because they have no choice. If they didn’t become adults, they would starve to death.

If there happens to be a society where children are not compelled to become adults, that’s usually a good sign.

The romanticization of a past era when children “wanted” to drive and to take on financial responsibilities is nostalgic sentiment, but not one based in truth. Children do not “want” to do these things, but if everyone around them was doing them, they can convince themselves that it is what they want to do as well — an important psychological trick that helps them cope with a more harsh reality.

Second, it is silly to reduce smartphone addiction to a matter of mere distraction. As Tristan Harris put it, there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen spending all their working hours trying to figure out how to get you addicted. Hardly a fair fight. And if you are in the least bit realistic about your psychological frailties, you would understand how easy it is for media and technology to manipulate your thoughts and behaviors.

Shifts in behavior among the youth has always been a problem to every generation. In fact, that may be the only constant. But that is not to say that screen addiction is not pernicious. Apparently, Steve Jobs himself limited the amount of time he allowed his children to use the products he brought into the world.

A fundamental feature of any new technology is that it does not care about your well-being. That is not how the economic system works. The products that sell are the ones that are highly demanded (for whatever reason, including addiction). People seem to look for morality in the wrong places.

But if technology has become so central to how people live (convenience), and staring at screens is the only way people can work or connect with friends, and read the news, then how can they avoid it? How much “freedom” would they gain by doing so?

And herein lies the paradox.

Throwing your smartphone away is not a good idea, because you do need it. But allowing yourself to become wholly controlled by technologies that force you to become addicted to them is not a good idea either. The only reasonable solution is a form of self-discipline, where the technology itself is treated like anything that is harmful in excess.

A strict information diet, screen diet seem to be the only practical solution. But such a solution cannot be implemented without a concerted effort and plan. Unfortunately, it does not occur to most people that guarding their time against a world that is competing for their attention is an important thing to do.

If you are interested in outsmarting the invisible forces that steal away your time, read these books: Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit. They will help you design rituals and practices that help you in an unfair fight.

Originally published at

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