The Current

Why technology is addictive and what to do about it

Author Adam Alter explains how technology keeps us hooked and reveals patterns of addiction akin to substance abuse.
Do your palms get sweaty if your phone is out of reach? Author Adam Alter explains how technology is making and keeping us addicted. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

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A buzzing phone, glowing tablet or the sound of a favourite video game can be a powerful temptation many can't resist.

Now new research shows the cravings we have to connect to our devices can in fact be a real addiction.

"Seventy-five per cent of people now say they can reach their phones 24 hours a day without having to move their feet," says Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked.

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that the average person spends 3 hours and 42 minutes staring at screens each day, and that number is rising.

Most people generally underestimate how long they are on their devices. Alter includes himself in this category and suggests several apps that can be used to track actual screen time use. (See below for apps)

Alter explains the success of social media platforms are that they have many ingredients that make it irresistible — the biggest being that a reward is within reach but yet never guaranteed, much like gambling. 
The average person spends almost four hours a day on devices. How addicted do you think you are to technology? (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

"Paradoxically when you guarantee someone a reward they get bored and they stop doing something quite quickly. Whereas when you build in just a small dose of uncertainty ... especially where the reward devices is driven by humans, we're really fascinated by how humans think of us — is very hard for humans to resist." 

While it's too early to know the longterm impact of our technological consumption, Alter says there is evidence that children who spend a lot of time on screens early in life have language delays and are not skilled communicators.

He tells Tremonti that a lot of nuances are lost when a person who would normally use precise language to communicate something funny like LOL when texting can't factor in facial expressions or a lilt in a laugh.

"Everything is a cue. And we don't even think about that if we're skilled communicators who have spent a lot of time face to face," Alter says.

"But if your early use of communication is spent LOL'ing and you don't acquire those nuances, it's very hard to acquire them later on."

When it comes to toddlers, Atler refers to the quote, "never get high on your own supply" and suggests the best way to maintain distance from the "drug" of screen time is to "keep them away from your family."

Alter says even Steve Job's believed in some restrictions, pointing to a speech where Jobs publicly shared that his kids have limited technology use and there is no iPad in the home.

Alter's advice to curb addiction to technology is to pick a time every day to be screen-free. He also puts his phone on airplane mode on Saturdays and uses his phone just as a camera.

"People at first find that's difficult, they have a bit of withdrawal like they might from a drug. But over time it makes them feel like happier, healthier people."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

Take the challenge: Guess how much you use your phone, then track your use for 24 hours with one of these suggested apps. Let us know your results.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.