Op-Ed: Your phone is not your friend

Monday, February 19, 2018 - 5:33pm

A couple of nights ago, I was clearing my dishes in the dining hall when I realized that I had finished all of my work for the day. Feeling satisfied, I walked up to my dorm room and thought about how I would seize this opportunity. I could have gone to the gym, hung out with my friends or if I had really felt up to it, gotten started on a project due the following week. Instead, I pulled out my phone and cycled through the same three apps for a number of hours. Wait, how did that happen?

The instinct that took hold of me that night has been a regular occurrence since I started using technology. I started watching YouTube videos when I was in fourth grade. At first, it was something that my friends and I did together, going on long binges of our favorite YouTubers. In fact, I can never remember a time when I watched just one video. The nature of clicking through YouTube videos, scrolling through Instagram or watching stories on Snapchat (before the update) is such that people compulsively want to see the next thing.

Some have linked this obsession with technology to an addiction, and it is not such an outlandish idea. The hallmark characteristics of an addiction are when a person craves the object of addiction, has lost control over its use and continues to use it despite the adverse effects. This is exactly what happens when I open my phone and start browsing. In general, I know that I want to make a good use of my time, yet once I open my phone, I find myself caught in a personal technology inertia. In order to return to real life, it takes a monumental, conscious effort to put the phone down and forget about it. The real question is, why is this so bad for me? If people are naturally drawn to seek out behaviors like phone-scrolling, isn’t it healthy to indulge once in a while?

One thing to consider is that tech companies know how addictive their services are and are doing nothing about it. According to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, tech companies employ a variety of techniques taken from behavioral neuroscience. Harris has become a whistleblower for the ways in which tech companies hack our minds, and his findings are troubling.

For example, design aspects such as “auto-play” on YouTube and Netflix, as well as “continuous scrolling” on Instagram, can keep the user engaged for long periods of time and offer a bottomless supply of relevant content. Even something like notifications on Facebook resemble something called a variable reward, which is often used in casino slot machines to encourage gamblers. At least to me, the manipulative power of these companies is worrying and shows how, little by little, our generation might be losing a great deal of autonomy.

Above all, I would argue that the best reason for people to get off their phone as soon they get the chance is because they are not doing anything. This may seem obvious, but there are a whole host of activities that fall under this dichotomy of consumption versus action. When we consume useless online content, we are simply empty boxes waiting to be filled with whatever celebrity news tech companies want to feed us. By contrast, even having a conversation with someone in real life forces you to use your brain, body language and be aware of the world around you.

Ultimately, the things that have improved my quality of life are activities where I am engaged in what I am doing. For example, I am a big soccer fan and love to watch games on TV. It is awesome to see professional players show off their skills, but I don’t think I would have the same appreciation for the game if I never went out onto a field and played. This difference also exists between watching a Snapchat story and actually doing something story-worthy. Sitting on my phone is usually entertaining in the short-term, but rarely does it lead to new opportunities for friendships or meaningful experiences.

In the most extreme case, overuse of technology is a form of escapism: a coping mechanism where people fantasize or indulge in pleasurable activities to avoid the difficult, banal aspects of their existence. This is not to say that everyone who spends a bit too much time on their phone is fundamentally fed up with their everyday life, but it does leave some questions concerning how we use what little time we have.

The addictive nature of technology, as well as societal conventions, have convinced us that it is completely normal to spend hours sitting at a desk facing a computer, and this carries over into how we use our free time. My advice to fellow Wolverines (and myself) is to stop and think the next time you find yourself on the verge of scrolling aimlessly on the phone. Is there something else you would rather be doing?

Alex Satola is an LSA freshman.