Checking messages by the North Sea. Photo: Tommy Andreassen. Source: Pixabay.
People check their phones in the strangest places: on a chairlift, at the beach, even walking in a snowstorm. It’s typical to see skiers or runners or commuters plugged in, headphones dangling from their ears. Our own family has tried to have a no-phones-at-the-table rule around dinner, with varying levels of success. There’s even a technical term for the fear of being out of cell phone contact: nomophobia.
Our phones – and particularly some of the apps – have been engineered to be engaging, even addictive. 25 year ago, a Stanford University professor began to study how computers can persuade people, a discipline he called “captology.” After Apple introduced the iPhone, he began to focus on smartphones. His students from those classes – known as “The Facebook Class” – went on to start or take leading positions at Google, Instagram, Uber, and of course Facebook. The class itself began designing 3rd-party apps for Facebook that garnered millions of users and hundreds of thousands in monthly ad revenues by the end of the semester.
The apps on our phones are precisely engineered to be engaging. The professor, BJ Fogg, notes that people act when three forces converge: motivation, ability, and a trigger. If you’re a social media user, you’re motivated to see if your post is getting “liked,” you’re triggered by a push notification, and your smartphone gives you the ability to check. And check. And check again. Understanding our triggers allows the app-makers to feed them. If we’re lonely they try to connect us; if we’re bored they entertain us. By amassing “big data” profiles on each of us, tailored to our online activity, the social media platforms feed our desires just when we’re vulnerable. We’re like alcoholics where smartphones are the bar that chimes us into “happy hour” and lines up the shots right in front of us.
What do we do about this? A handful of tech engineers can now steer the thoughts and feelings of billions of people. That’s at the heart of today’s “techlash” against the data giants, and their smartphone-maker enablers. Companies may design their products to be less addictive, but ultimately it’s up to each of us to unplug. Turn off notifications, the most common triggers. Delete apps like Facebook or Instagram that distract us from being in the moment. And at critical times – like when we’re at a dramatic, rocky shoreline, turn the phone off. Each of us has access to a power button.
But we’re in a feedback loop: targeted ads are incredibly effective, so tech platforms engineer the user experience to be engaging, which makes the ads more effective (and profitable). There’s little incentive for the platforms to back away or change their highly profitable business model.
From a public policy perspective, we need to have cell-free zones: schools, for example. Young brains are particularly vulnerable to obsessive addictions and can be impacted in unexpected ways. We’re still understanding the effects of screen time. And texting while driving should be a crime, not just a traffic violation. Utah treats it as equivalent to drunk driving, with jail time for offenders.
Photo: 1st Lt. Laura Balch. Source: USAF
Are smartphones addictive? You bet they are! But they’re a big part of life, today. It’s up to us to manage them.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”