Here are the 3 biggest things you need to know: 1) Any of us could become addicted to something as a result of exposure to circumstances and certain experiences, addiction is not something certain people are predisposed to. 2) However, you won’t become addicted unless a behavior or substance meets a psychological need. Addiction can’t take hold without psychological needs to meet in an unhealthy way. 3)Much of our technology is engineered specifically to create an addictive experience.
In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter examines all the elements of addictive technology, and the rise and biology of behavioral addiction. He explains how understanding substance addiction (drugs, cigarettes) can help us see how behavioral addiction is also an addiction and has the same basic properties of addictive behavior, with different but just as destructive properties.
Technology developers have learned to combine goals, feedback, progress, escalation, cliffhangers and social interaction into an irresistible experience that frequently causes users today to jeopardize their mental, emotional and physical health. The stories Alter describes are alarming, college students who never leave their room and drop out and enter rehab because of a World of Warcraft addiction, women who lose money on a game by Kim Kardashian that some of us would never play, but then others who lose way too much time if not money to simple games promoted on Facebook that have many similarities with Tetris.
The truth is that the science is out there for game and technology developers to make their products addictive or not, depending on their own personal goals and moral compass. Some developers have tested their products and then made adjustments to make them more or less addictive, depending on how much they cared about making money vs. the experience and well being of their consumers.
Technology products in our age are based on science, and sheer willpower is a weak, ineffective way to set limits on our use of technology. We need the science of how to resist overuse. The best method that Alter talks about are ‘stopping rules’. Some products and games are made with them. We need to understand how to recognize these in products and how to set our own external stopping rules for ourselves and our kids for products that don’t. A lot of tips that you read online are based on this principle. Fitness trackers can help some people be more active, but one of their dangers is that they overcome a natural instincts, our stopping rules. We may not stop from fatigue or impending injury because we are focused a certain number of steps or miles. When I was growing up I loved reading so much I would get trouble for not turning the light out and going to bed. I finally learned to stop in the middle of a chapter instead of at the end because the end always contained a cliff hanger. When Netflix automatically starts playing the next episode of a show, they have eliminated the natural stopping rule or opportunity. To recreate that you could decide as a family to always pause after every episode to take a bathroom break and give everyone a chance to consider whether it is time to move on to another activity.
Another trend you need to be aware of is gamification; this is the process of applying elements of a game to a desirable activity that is not intrinsically rewarding. It can be used strategically to help people accomplish good goals and make valuable changes, but it must be used cautiously and intentionally. I believe it is important for us to be aware of this technique as well and be able to recognize it because it is a useful tool for getting other people to do something without thinking about the real intent of the activity. Just like technology, gamification has great potential for incredible use and also for abuse. It is best for an activity that is boring or hard, but beneficial. Turning the activity into a game makes it more fun to do and easier to get people to do it. Sometimes I have used this technique myself when counting calories and doing a spending freeze or cash budget for a season. These kinds of activities can turn weight loss or saving money into a game, which can make it more fun, interesting and challenging and increase our measure of success. My experience is that this is best done only for a season, or else it is very hard not to maintain a good balance with other areas of life.
Another interesting lesson from the book: We want hardship and challenge. A certain level of difficulty is quite enjoyable. As we gain skill in an activity, it is most enjoyable if the challenge increases slowly to match the slow increase in our skill. When skill and challenge are balanced in an activity we enjoy, we experience flow. This is often experienced as a loss of time. In my experience people enjoy this experience greatly when they are working on a hobby or meaningful work, a passion. But they may regret the time spent if they were playing a modern version of Tetris, a game that carefully combines all the elements of an irresistible game but without producing any thing to show for the time spent beyond a high score. As a mom with many children and young children, one of my greatest constant frustrations is that I am frequently interrupted and rarely achieve a state of flow, at least not without staying up late, in which case I need to limit the extent to which I really lose track of time or I will jeopardize my morning schedule.
I think finding the state of flow is something that we should strive to allow ourselves and our husbands to achieve occasionally, for a healthy mental and emotional state of mind. (I occasionally prioritize it over sleep, I try not to, but that gets down to balance and knowing what you need the most that day or that week.) And when our kids achieve this state, we should try our best to be aware of what activity they were doing and why they enjoyed it so much. If they were doing something creative you might have a clue to a strong personal interest, in which case write it down for later when they are trying to pick extracurricular activiites. If they were consuming technology or playing a game, debrief with them and look for signs that they might be comforting a fear or anxiety by losing themselves in the story world of the show or the game.
Whenever you’re in doubt about the affect of screens on your kids, take the time after they watch a show or play a game, to talk to them about it. Process the experience with them, talk to them about what they learned, why they enjoyed it, whether they had any difficulties in playing or stopping the activity. Teach them self-awareness and that technology is a tool to be used and that you are always available to talk about it.
My biggest takeaway is that these ideas must be applied to our lives cautiously and intentionally, and that we must aim to maintain balance, and that the antidote and ultimate guard against abuse and imbalance is meaningful relationships.
Action step: The next time your kids do screen time, do this: take the time after they watch a show or play a game, to talk to them about it. Process the experience with them, talk to them about what they learned, why they enjoyed it, whether they had any difficulties in playing or stopping the activity.
Notes about my journey:
In addition to all of the above, my two biggest personal takeaways were: 1) I might be a bit addicted to sugar, and 2) that besides not letting my boys do screen time all day long, the most important thing for me to do is to meet their psychological needs by being a healthy mom. (I need to lose weight to be the mom I want to be, raising four boys with my husband for the next 18 years and then having a healthy active life after that, physically, mentally and emotionally. I also need to prioritize my husband and my marriage and practice good boundaries with my children in guarding that time – sometimes getting them to let he and I carry on a conversation takes a lot of effort! Basically everything involved in being healthy myself and then from a place of strength and confidence and unity with my husband, being able to meet or accept our kids emotional needs is as important as rules about screen time.)
I had considered doing a no-screen summer. Instead we’ve decided to do no-screens for the first week of summer after school gets out (which is next week) to set the tone, cause us to be creative, pull out the board games and art supplies, use the Idea Jar, and set a fun tone for the summer. (We’re also going to finish making our Summer Bucket List which I will share.) Then we’ll set 1-2 hours screen limit per day and maybe one day a week of no-screens. I also like to adjust based on the weather. My boys know from throughout the school year that when it’s unseasonably beautiful outside, that itself is a good enough reason for us to deny screen time for the day, and that when we get a thunderstorm we might curl up with popcorn and a movie even if they’ve been playing video games for awhile.