Dion Chang: Understanding your digital addiction

Are you tired of being phubbed?

“Phubbing” is the act of snubbing someone you are talking to, not responding to a message on your cellphone or descending into a social media black hole. Most of us are guilty of doing it and all of us have been phubbed: by work colleagues, friends, spouses and – if you’re a parent – especially your children.

French teachers have obviously had enough of being phubbed because in July a bill was passed banning cellphones in all three education tiers (primary, middle and high school), except for educational purposes. Teachers have long been calling for this ban to curb growing distraction in classrooms as well as to protect children from inappropriate content such as porn, violence as well as cyberbullying. Each school will be allowed to decide how to enforce the ban.

Some might think this an extreme measure but it is part of a renewed surge to limit your screen time, led – ironically – by the very same platforms that keep us glued to our black mirrors. Tech and social media companies, it seems, have suddenly found a conscience, and we have a young, pink-haired, nose-ringed, whistle-blower to thank for this.

Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistle-blower exposed the fact that millions of Facebook users’ data was used to manipulate voter sentiment in the run-up to the American election, which saw Donald Trump voted in as president.

In the subsequent fallout of the exposé, Jaron Lanier – an American computer philosophy writer and computer scientist – remarked in a TED Talks session that: “I can’t call these things social networks any more, I call them behaviour modification empires.”

A chilling statement made even more so because it has made us realise what we are really up against. For years we have come to understand the concept of digital addiction, but these new insights have laid bare how the addiction has been cleverly engineered.

Boundless Mind is a Silicon Valley start-up with a difference. Instead of trying to build the next big thing that will consume us, they are a group of trained neuroscientists trying to find ways to stem our – now entrenched – digital addiction.

They explained to Time magazine that core to the problem is the unique business model that is driven by “persuasive technology”: a potent combination of tech and neuroscience that deliberately encourages certain human behaviours (like keeping you scrolling mindlessly) while discouraging others (like considered, nuanced ideas).

Ramsey Brown, one of the co-founders of Boundless Mind, elaborates on how the business model then flows on from persuasive technology.

“The longer we are glued to an app – known as eyeball time – the more money its creators make by selling our attention and access to our personal data to advertisers and others.

“You and I are not customers of Facebook or Google; we are the product being sold.”

He also provides an insight, which might be cold comfort for parents, “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone. Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”

Parents might also be reassured by a recent Pew Research report that reveals teenagers themselves are starting to feel the negative effects of persuasive technology.

The survey was small – 750 participants aged 13 to 17 years – but encouraging. Just over half the respondents (54%) thought they spend too much time on their smartphones. At least 52% said they have taken steps to ease up on mobile phone use and 57% have attempted to limit their use of social media and video games.

These attempts should become easier now as tech companies scrabble for ways and means to counter the digital addiction they spawned with new tools to encourage “digital wellbeing”.

Facebook is trialling a new tool which will eventually be built into its Android app. It will assist users to monitor the amount of time they spend on the social media platform.

It aims to wean users off “mindless scrolling” by alerting users to the number of minutes they have spent per day on the app (in the past week) and will enable them to set self-imposed time limits, for which they will receive notifications when the limit is reached.

Instagram, also owned by Facebook, is also trialling “Usage Insights”, which also provides time-tracking tools, daily-limit reminders and “usage insights” that will lay bare the full extent of your addiction.

Google is also joining the recovery crusade. In June they announced a “digital wellbeing kit” that will come standard with its Pixel phones, which also provides limitation tools and metrics that track your social media usage.

These initiatives have in turn spawned a host of new mindful apps with catchy names such as Offtime, Breakfree and Freedom, the irony of which seems to be lost on the app developers.

- Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.

For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com