Erik Nesler: Saving those not yet addicted to tech

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 5:29pm

Think of the number of hours that you spend on your phone per day. Whether you relentlessly post on Instagram or you regularly read the news, I’m sure that you spend way more time on your phone than you would like to admit.

I recently began consciously monitoring my phone usage, and if you’re anything like me, you probably waste at least a few hours a day on your phone. Initially, I thought that a few hours a day wasn’t terrible. This reaction, however, was simply a way to resist my ultimate realization: I was addicted to my phone.  

If you think about it, I’m sure many of you are the same way. We check our phones as soon as we wake up, all throughout the day and then one last time right before we fall asleep (usually for several hours before actually falling asleep). We hit the home button, hoping for a notification, anytime we feel bored or awkward or anxious. Our phones are there for us, with an infinite amount of stimulation to distract us whenever we need it.

I began thinking about my phone usage (and overall technology usage) when several publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, reported on an open letter sent to Apple Inc. about the negative effects smartphones can have on children. The media has begun scrutinizing these companies for potentially exploiting human behavior in search of excessive profits.

Our phones, paired with the social media apps on their interfaces, captivate us with their consistent, never-ending information stream. In an essay, Nicholas Carr, a renowned author on the subject of technology and its impact on society, wrote, “(the brain’s) attention is drawn toward any object that is new, intriguing or otherwise striking.” Social media relies on this truth to profitably capture as much attention as possible. YouTube keeps us watching with its “autoplay” feature, and Instagram keeps us scrolling on the “explore” page.

The addictive nature of phones and their apps have harmful consequences for each and every user. The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research published a report that noted even the presence of a smartphone can significantly reduce cognitive performance on a variety of tests. Our phones are constantly asking for our attention — even when we’re not necessarily using them. The research demonstrates how our phones can inhibit us from reaching our true cognitive potential.

The consequences of social media are even more severe. Holly Shakya, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, Sol Goldman Family professor at Yale University, found in a landmark study that “the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.” Meaning, the more time you spend on social media, the unhappier you feel. Frequent social media users report feeling depressed and lonely, and they also experience resentment, or jealousy, of their supposed “friends” when checking social media.  

It’s not just academics scrutinizing the tech giants. Investors are even starting to call for change. Two Apple Inc. investors, who control approximately $2 billion of the tech company’s shares, recently sent a letter to its board of directors criticizing the iPhone’s influence on children. The investors, along with much of the public, have become concerned over the effect that phones will have on Generation Z, the generation that is growing up surrounded by smartphones.

In addition, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a group of pediatric and mental health experts, wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to discontinue the new Messenger Kids app. The group is concerned with Facebook preying on a vulnerable portion of the population in what is likely an effort to create lifelong users of the social media platform.

Lawmakers are similarly beginning to scrutinize these companies because of the negative externalities that their products and services bring to society. Facebook was initially scrutinized because of the alleged Russian efforts to influence the latest U.S. presidential election via the platform, but lawmakers are now raising important questions relating to not only misinformation with Facebook but also consumer protection with regard to all of the tech giants.

Tech giants may face heightened regulations in the coming years, but I hope that they will realize their externalities to society and make meaningful changes on their own. These companies have a unique opportunity to make their products and services more responsible without governmental intervention, and I hope that they take advantage of it. I hope that they will develop safeguards for children and reduce or eliminate their platform’s habit-forming qualities without being forced to do so.

Those affected may already be addicted, but the least we can do is help the coming generations use these products and services more wisely.

Erik Nesler can be reached at egnesler@umich.edu.