by Kyle Qian, '21
The ding of the push notification, the pull to refresh muscle memory, the FOMO from Snapchat stories, the Instagram envy. These are daily occurrences for our generation today that affect our lives -- for better and worse. To me, the internet is much more addicting than caffeine could ever be. It's something I could never imagine quitting, and I am not alone in this sentiment. As the internet claims (lol), the average adult spends more than 3 hours on the phone every day, and over 70% sleep next to their phone at night. A plethora of reasons fuel this addiction, and this problem will only become more relevant in the future as big tech aims for even bigger schemes.
Tech companies purposely design their products to be as addicting as possible -- it’s how they build up data on consumers to sell to advertisers and their main source of revenue. For example, Facebook or Reddit intentionally allow users to scroll endlessly with the absence of a stopping cue. Snapchat uses streaks to incentivize users to come back daily. Youtube autoplays the next video within seconds. Furthermore, the AI algorithms behind such apps are designed to prioritize personalized content. There are certain human behaviors that designers like to exploit. Variable rewards, such as likes or comments, are especially effective as they are fleeting and trigger hits of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to improved and regulated mood, that convince us to come for more. Deliberate choices of color and sound are also made to be maximally addicting . The appearance of a red circle on the top-right corner of an app icon initiates a Pavlovian response to open the app; the buzzing of a phone is universally understood to represent fresh content. However, it is important to keep in mind the consequences of design intended to cause addiction. Even design consultants admit that they are essentially “conducting a massive, uncontrolled experiment on the human psyche with the advent of social media and digital advertising.” Tech can be dangerous and these companies know it. There is a reason why Steve Jobs didn’t let his children own iPads.
What are some consequences of this dangerous “drug”?
It has been theorized that technology can cause failing memory, emotional instability, and other physical ailments.
More concretely, a research group from the Biomedical Research Imaging Center used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify structural changes in the brain caused by internet usage. They found disruptions of long-range and inter-hemispheric connections in a wide range of participants with and without internet addiction symptoms. These disruptions are a common symptom in many behavioral abnormalities like autism, schizophrenia, opioid addiction, and cocaine addiction and so it’s quite alarming that internet addiction could be mentioned among these highly dysfunctional brain disorders. They have even observed abnormal white matter and shrinkage of brain tissue (grey matter) linked to screen addiction, meaning that the brain is essentially breaking down. These are the areas of the brain in charge of planning, prioritizing, organizing, and controlling impulses -- all crucial functions of our day to day operations.
Another study of 19 participants with technology addiction by researchers from Korea University found disproportionately high levels of a neurotransmitter, gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), that inhibits brain activity. When these subjects were placed on an internet withdrawal program called cognitive behavioral therapy, their GABA levels concurrently decreased with declined usage. Since there were only 19 people in the study group, the measurements of their GABA levels are inconclusive; however the reduction in addiction symptoms within each patient after treatment is a significant finding -- showing that there is some correlation between high GABA levels and internet usage. High levels of GABA has been linked with other addictions and psychiatric disorders and induces depression and drowsiness.
So who should be responsible for addressing these changes?
Anxiety over technology's impact on society are as old as society itself. So should we be techno-optimists or techno-pessimists? On one side, we can ultimately think of technology as just a tool and humans as responsible for how they use technology. That is, humans should learn to cope with internet addiction themselves, rather than restricting technological innovation/progress. Meanwhile on the other side, there is a belief that tech should hold itself accountable for its consequences, and that those producing these technologies in charge should scale down their addictive efforts. I argue that tech companies should be held responsible for their exploitative design because the rate at which they can innovate addiction is faster than the catch up rate for treatments. Furthermore, it is time for these companies to focus less on revenue generation and more on efforts elsewhere, where there is still plenty of money to be made. Some of the most powerful technology in the world is not being used for solving world inequalities, but rather on how to get consumers to click on an ad. And it is pretty scary to think about how companies can carry out these plans for large-scale addiction unopposed.
The Center for Humane Technology is one such organization dedicated to driving solutions for this issue, with an emphasis on humane design: designing to protect our most vulnerable human instincts from being abused. They take on an effective four-pronged approach: humane design, political pressure, cultural awakening, and employee engagement. To me, the most crucial step lies in employee engagement. Only when engineers and designers, who are the most valuable assets of tech companies, advocate for humane design will these companies actually shift their focus. This is also definitely feasible since most technologists genuinely want to see their products improve society.
We don’t have to inhibit technology, but we should be more attentive and selective towards our usage.
 "Technology Designed for Addiction." Psychology Today. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/boundless/201801/technology-designed-addiction.
 Wee, Chong-Yaw, Zhimin Zhao, Pew-Thian Yap, Guorong Wu, Feng Shi, True Price, Yasong Du, Jianrong Xu, Yan Zhou, and Dinggang Shen. "Disrupted Brain Functional Network in Internet Addiction Disorder: A Resting-State Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study." PLoS ONE 9, no. 9 (2014). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107306.
 Waltz, Emily. "Internet Addiction Creates Imbalance in the Brain." IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News. November 30, 2017. Accessed October 27, 2018. https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/imaging/internet-addiction-creates-imbalance-in-the-brain.