We tend to pin the blame on our tech for our shortcomings or weaknesses (or those of our children). Keep getting distracted when you’re trying to work? Blame your iPhone. Your twelve-year-old is morose and closed? Blame his Xbox. Compulsively checking your phone every five minutes? Blame those pesky notifications. Constantly comparing yourself to others? Blame Instagram. Addicted to sex? Blame PornHub.
But who has the upper hand? The technology companies or you and your willpower? You, of course. It is easy to paint Facebook or Google or Apple as these omnipotent, omniscient corporations with sinister agendas. It is easy to see yourself as a powerless victim of their sneaky tricks to get you hooked on their apps or programmes or devices. It is also lazy. If you accept this narrative, things will never change: you will keep getting constantly distracted; your kids still won’t communicate with you; you will keep wasting time on your phone. If this sounds familiar then you are serving your tech, and it should be the other way around – you’ve paid for it, after all.
Why is technology so addictive?
Digital technology – particularly social media – is addictive because it is designed to keep users returning. And this is entirely reasonable. We can’t denigrate the tech companies for creating appealing products which hook us. That’s how the capitalist world works. We can’t say, “Hey Facebook, would you mind making your app less engaging and user-friendly because it distracts me all the time?”
Digital addiction is a growing problem
Technology is essentially fashioned to fulfil the basic human need to feel a sense of belonging and connection with others; the concept of FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), informs the way tech platforms design their apps. They bombard you with notifications and reminders containing alluring emojis; they alert you when someone you know well or engage with a lot has recently posted to get you onto the app; they tell you when a snap or a status is only temporarily available to get you online quickly; they inform you when a post or upload is popular to encourage you to have a look too (known as ‘social proof’); they use algorithms to personalise your news feed and produce targeted ads.
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Notifications and “presence features” (e.g. on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, you can see when your friends are online and when they were last active) keep people notified of each others’ availability and activities in real-time.
But you don’t have to let your tech win
Your apps and devices are designed to hack your attention, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hack it back. It is within your power to do this. Can we really say technology is hijacking our brains? Or is that just an excuse to not try to change our habits? Apps like Instagram even offer features which help you monitor your usage; you can’t ask for more than that.
Don’t let it beat you
If you are suffering from negative side effects of using technology such as distractibility, changes in your mood or anxious feelings, then your tech is winning – you are serving it. Your phone, apps and computer are successfully keeping you hooked, and the costs to your happiness and wellbeing outweigh the benefits of becoming more informed and conscious. But you can turn things around and utilise your tech to suit you and your needs.
How do I regain control?
Taking a step back from your tech is hard, because it is very addictive, and addictive habits like compulsively checking your notifications are difficult to kick. But it is doable – because you are in control. Remember that. A ‘digital detox’ is going too far; it can leave you feeling isolated and disconnected, and anyway, technology is useful.
But there are smaller things you can do to hack back:
- Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning – if you charge it overnight, leave it downstairs or on the other side of your bedroom.
- Change your notification settings – ⅔ of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings. You could set your phone to ‘do not disturb’ during certain hours of the day or turn off notifications altogether for particularly distracting apps.
- Set aside a certain amount of time each day to spend replying to emails at work – email is the ultimate habit-forming tech and it is easy to end up spending a disproportionate amount of time per day just sending emails.
- Delete the Facebook app so you can only check Facebook via your browser.
How do I stop my kids from becoming addicted to tech?
Don’t give them tech when they’re too young
Teach them good habits. Set limits. Don’t give them a phone or an iPad until they are at an age where they really need it. You can’t shield them entirely from tech – it’s a part of the modern world – but make sure they understand that technology is something which has its risks and dangers, and has to be used effectively and sensibly to minimise these. Don’t let your kids get any social media until they are at least thirteen or fourteen (the minimum user age exists for a reason!). Negotiate screen time limits and explain why it is important to utilise tech to avoid being manipulated by it and becoming addicted. Rather than throwing rules at them, it is far better if they can establish their own limits.
Turn things around so that your tech is serving you; that’s the way it should be.