With access to apps that instantly connects us to millions of users, much of our day is spent hunched over a screen. Adam Alter, author of ‘‘Irresistible,” explores the rise of technology addiction – specifically in teenagers. The following is a transcript of the video.
Adam Alter: Nomophobia is a new word that’s being coined to describe no mobile phobia and it’s the idea that a lot of us, in thinking about not having our phones, experience something like a phobia and this is supposed to describe hundreds of millions of people today and I’m sure that number is growing at the moment. What that means is that when you think about, for example, your phone falling out of your pocket, tumbling to the ground and shattering into a million pieces, you should experience anxiety symptoms and it’s especially true among young people.
Alter: I ran a study at one point where I asked young people, a whole lot of teenagers, a very simple question. I said to them, “Imagine you have this very unpleasant choice. So, you can either watch your phone tumble to the ground and shatter into a million pieces or you can have a small bone in your hand broken.” Now, that seems to people of a certain age and older like a fairly straightforward question with a straightforward answer. It seems ridiculous. Of course you choose to save the integrity of your hand and let your phone break. You can always replace a phone, but for young people this is actually a very difficult question. In my experience, about 40% – 50% of them will say, “Ultimately, I think it probably makes more sense to have a bone in my hand broken than it does to have my phone broken.”
Alter: And, you can understand why that is, apart from the fact that it is expensive to have a phone repaired and there’s some time where you’re without your phone, that is their portal to a social world that is very important to them. Being without that social world for a while is probably not as detrimental in some respects as being without a particular bone in your hand. Most of the time, you can get by and you can see this in the way they ask follow-up questions. So, a lot of these teens will say to me things like, “Is it my left hand or my right hand?” and the most important question, “Once I break that bone in my hand, can I still use my phone? Is it a bone that I need to be able to scroll on the phone, because if it is, then that’s no deal, but if it’s not a bone that I need to use my screen at least I can continue to use my phone during the time I’m healing.” If people are willing to endure physical harm to keep their phones that obviously suggests that this is a major issue.
Alter: The definition that I like for behavioral addiction that makes the most sense to me is an experience that we return to compulsively over and over again because it feels good in a short run but in the long run, it ultimately undermines our well-being in some respect. So, it can be someone who notices that over time their social relationships are degrading because they don’t have a consistent, face-to-face contact with people and that’s especially problematic for kids who need time in that real face-to-face social world because that’s where they develop all the competencies of being a social creature. The way to work out what other people are thinking, to share your feelings in a way that you want them to be shared for other people to understand you for you to make just the right facial expressions at just the right times. Those seem like obvious and easy-to-do things for most adults but for kids it’s very difficult to do that. They take time to hone those skills and so you need face-to-face time to do that and if you don’t have that, if you’re spending all your time on screens because it’s really fun to crush one more candy on Candy Crush or do whatever it is that you might be doing, you’re not developing those long-term competencies and therefore your long-term well-being is degraded.