It's not the smartphone in your hand. It's not the tablet or the laptop. Reports about shiny objects captivating us all day miss the mark by a long shot. Apple is not to blame for making a useful phone, and Google is not to blame for the wide assortment of gadgets that use the Android operating system, like the Pixel 2 smartphone.
What's to blame instead?
I noticed this when I was waiting in line at a coffee shop. Everyone was flipping through their social-media feeds. We're not that into photography and cat videos, are we? What tends to get most people excited is when they see a comment on one of their posts, or a heart on an Instagram photo. We're addicted to seeing digital rewards; each one releases a small drop of dopamine in our brains, and it can happen every few seconds.
That's why apps like Snapchat and Instagram are rising in popularity even more than Twitter and Facebook. Micro-feedback taps into our desire as humans to be noticed, to be credited, to experience recognition. As society becomes more and more insular, more cocooned with media and gadgets, we're all looking for more feedback on our phones because we're certainly not getting feedback in person.
When was the last time someone told you in person that you posted an amazing photo, or that you look awesome, or that you finished a work task on time? We all know the best bosses are the ones who give positive feedback regularly, but no one could ever compete with the feedback loop in social-media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Sadly, when we don't get enough of this dopamine hit--say, no one notices a photo we posted--we also get depressed.
Mark Zuckerberg didn't quite acknowledge this problem in a recent Congressional hearing. But a former Facebook exec certainly did, essentially saying the feedback loop from apps like Facebook are contributing to the decay of society in general. The younger you are, the more you crave the reward, and the more depressed you get when it doesn't arrive.
What can help?
My advice is to schedule your social-media sessions. Maybe you review accounts early in the morning and you avoid getting addicted all day. The issue here is that we're often tired when we finally get to the mall or have to wait in line at the coffee shop, so we pull out the phone and start looking for micro-feedback to deal with boredom and routine. That's when it really causes the most problems and when we turn into digital zombies.
I also recommend going on a digital fast. Take an entire month off from social media, if you can, and see how it impacts your day and how much you interact with people in person.
Yet, more than anything, it's all about a simple realization. You have to remind yourself, every time you check an account, get an email, finish a level in a game, or discover a wonderful new product on Etsy, that you are in a feedback loop. The gadget is a tool, but the apps are clearly tapping into something else. You're collecting micro-rewards.
Our phones are stuck to our hands like glue. It's a little scary. The devices are useful and helpful, especially in a work setting. It's the micro-feedback that's causing the problems. Using phones for actual work, actual conversation--and avoiding the trap of looking for digital rewards--can help you find a better balance for how you use the devices.