Scene: Year 2030 – An evening conversation on a cosy Sunday night.
Alexa: “Aditya, what you are consuming now may affect your blood levels in the body. Why don’t you take it slow? The last time you got your tests done, you wanted to maintain your iron levels well. Remember?”
Me: “Alexa…why? Why so serious? Okay, I’m not and I do remember my fitness goals for this year. I’ve stopped eating those fries! Are you happy?.”
Alexa: “Of course…I’m here to keep a check on you.”
Me: “Yea, right!”
Alexa: “Sweet dreams, Aditya…”
Stop…stop right there! I know what you are thinking. Well, as much I’d love for this to happen to me. It scares the hell out of me for being so isolated and connected to a machine all the time! I mean who wouldn’t yearn for a motherly “sweet dream” wish on a good night?
Whether it is Alexa, Siri or another AI assistant, we humans are suckers for connection. And, the Internet is the ultimate connection machine! While our brain does push us to binge-watch or doomscroll social media, this addictive connectedness has become an inevitable part of our lives.
As someone who already sees Black Mirror-like reality unfolding around me, I also realise how Big Tech has become intrusive to a point where we do not know we are being consumed by it, unconsciously making our lives work around it. The competition today among tech companies is to race for and consume human attention. The more human attention a platform or technology is able to grab, the greater is their business. Let us consider Netflix as an example. If you ask any GenZ-er or any OTT viewer if they have sacrificed their sleep and finished a season overnight, you are sure to get a resounding “Yes” as an answer.
To put it in Netflix CEO Reed Hastings words: “You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. You really — we’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time.”
So, clearly, there’s more than just binge-watching happening in this case. Let us try to understand this from the life of a Netflix consumer. I remember speaking to a binge-watching pioneer (as I call him) who is in his teens. He finishes a show on the day a new notification pops up. His smartphone has the Netflix app, the tablet too along with his laptop. His break time involves doom scrolling Instagram or informing his social media community about the new shows. For most, it is difficult to play catch up with him for any other novel OTT content connoisseur!
Hacking your biological clock
Unknowingly, this kid spends nearly 15-16 hours of his day binge-watching shows. Food on bed, quick and short bathrooms breaks along with fast food orders which reach home through a food delivery app. That’s pretty much a scene straight out of his bedroom where he is holed up all day! The lockdown was pretty much a reason for him to do this again and again. Well, he is part of the 49% of urban Indian youth that binge-watched content along with the rest of the world, on OTTs, during the lockdown.
According to a report by DAN India, streaming was the most popular form of entertainment among Gen Z and millennials during the lockdown, with 70% of the respondents admitting to watching Video-on-Demand (VoD) and only 8% taking to gaming. For Bingers, this could be their only “happy getaway zone.”
But, what it does to humans is disastrous in many ways. This form of compulsive viewing can cause physical isolation and eventually, hack the human biological clock without your knowledge. Eventually, what is happening is that you are giving away your sleep and starving your body of its needs while wanting to finish that “one-last episode” that never ends!
Research claims that binge-watching causes gluteal amnesia (dead butt syndrome), bad moods and mood swings, the threat of amputation of limbs caused by diabetes, obesity, poor posture along with rounded shoulders. It also causes pale skin, premature ageing, obesity, and bloodshot eyes with dark patches. These are signs that are seen across both genders. Adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, lack of proper exercise and unbalanced diet during lockdown made it worse for binge-watchers.
Let us take another example from the Netflix series “Bridgerton”. According to Netflix’s numbers, “82 million households around the world chose to watch Bridgerton in its first 28 days. That’s 20 million more than even Netflix’s own projections. Similarly, another series “Stranger Things 2” too had a thumping response in the first few weeks of its release. Nielsen also said all of the nine new episodes averaged 4 million viewers and 3 million in the demo.” This kind of mass binge-watching was termed as a “significant viewing event” by Neilsen.
Now that Netflix has already consumed your sleep, let us try to understand what makes OTTs and such tech platforms so addictive that they keep us up all night?
Trigger-happy population & FoMo
We are all aware of that ‘5-minute kick’ we get when we get back to Instagram during breaks from work. And, then the random cool video pops up, then a notification, later an ad about your favourite product and so on. Soon you realise, 30 minutes have gone! While all of us are guilty of such time lapses, digital technologies such as social networks, online shopping sites, and games, use a set of persuasive and motivational techniques to keep users returning.
Some of these include:
a) Update: Ex – A status or a picture is only temporarily available, encouraging you to get online quickly.
b) Social proof: Ex – 15,000 users retweeted an article so you should go online and read it.
c) Personalisation: Ex – Customising your news feed to filter and display news based on your interests.
d) Reciprocity: Ex – Get more people to join you and win points and once our friends are part of the network, it becomes much more difficult for you or them to leave.
While this remains one side of technology, the immersive design is created in such a way where we feel a sense of belonging to the medium we are interacting with. So, when we are cut-off. FOMO Kicks in!
The whole rigmarole of notifications, forums, groups on social media promote active participation in real-time. In the process, some start to become compulsive checkers. The same logic applies to those “two ticks” on Whatsapp. Users can see whether their message is delivered or read. Meanwhile, psychologically this creates pressure on the other person to respond quickly. This reward-entertainment cycle is crucial for addictive design too. Immersive design is made to fill you with more content and, almost always, never disappoints! “Pull to refresh” mechanisms on smartphone apps such as Twitter, Instagram also belong to this same trigger-happy response system as we “wait for the win.”
Similarly, ever wondered how AI assistants are addictive too? You may not want to see them in the same light as social media or apps but the voice of Alexa or Siri is something that makes us feel connected. Therefore, we tend to share feelings of shame or our insecurities more openly with a machine. Supporting this view, a study makes the case that “when people talk without seeing each other, they’re better at recognizing each other’s feelings. They’re more empathetic.”
Well, apparently, even psychoanalysis expert, Sigmund Freud, understood this long before empirical research demonstrated it. “That’s why he had his patients lie on a couch, facing away from him. He could listen all the harder for the nuggets of truth in their ramblings, while they, undistracted by scowls or smiles, slipped into that twilight state in which they could unburden themselves of stifled feelings,” mentions a 2017 study.
The Science behind tech addiction
Internet addiction is also known as compulsive internet use (CIU) or internet addiction disorder (IAD), which is a recent phenomenon. Simply put, it is an individual’s uncontrollable desire to be connected to use the Internet. For tech addicts, internet use triggers the reward centre of the brain, flushing the body with chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, or even adrenaline, depending on the activity. It basically affects the pleasure systems in our human brain, similar to substances. It is the same neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge-watching or Internet addiction.
Here’s how a technology-addicted individual functions: His/her mind is unable to distinguish between the live and alternate realities that produce instant stimulation to the brain and give pleasure/reward. So, extreme use of technology directly disrupts one’s moods, social skills as well as their cognitive functions, creating an “unhealthy normal.” While they may not directly realise this, those around them or in their environment are directly affected by their behaviour. Several studies also have indicated that tech addicts are detected with high neuroticism, life impairment due to Internet use, psychiatric morbidity, suicidal ideation, and past suicidal attempts.
Another concern is that those who are addicted to technology are more likely to use substances than their peers with healthier relationships to tech, providing the insight that technology addiction may be a risk factor for alcohol and other drug addiction. Studies have shown that brain scans of young people with internet addiction disorder (IAD) are similar to those of people with substance addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis. “Damage to brain systems connecting emotional processing, attention, and decision-making are affected in both substance addicts and technology addicts. This discovery shows that being hooked on a tech behavior can, in some ways, be as physically damaging as an addiction to alcohol and other drug use.”
While this is one side of the story on addiction, the other harmful effect of compulsive Internet use is increased narcissism. In Norway, researchers studied social media use of more than 23,500 individuals, revealing that “addictive social media use is not only linked to low self-esteem but also narcissism. Mental health issues and depression are also reported widely in such cases.”
Another big concern for internet addicts or binge-watchers like my friend is a post-binge malaise. He explains to me about a feeling of loss or mourning he experiences when he finishes a series of Netflix, especially if he loves it. This temporary feeling of loss is directly linked to self-worth or identity crisis. This again pushes up the levels of anxiety, stress and depression, resulting in withdrawal symptoms among these addicts.
Tracking addiction patterns & behaviour
As against the common assumption, it isn’t just the millennials who have FOMO, it is also people of all ages and sizes who cannot imagine living in an unconnected world. Research from Ipsos in which 18,180 people were surveyed across 23 countries indicated that more than two-thirds of them cannot imagine a life that isn’t prefixed by www dot. While 73% of Americans said they cannot imagine an unconnected life, the highest share was recorded in India at 82%.
Even Pew Research states that internet addiction is prevalent in all age groups. However, teenagers and young adults are the worst hit.
- 61% of internet users are addicted to it. And, 48% of people between the ages of 18 to 29 go online almost constantly.
- Meanwhile, 36% of adults aged between 30 to 49, 19% of those 50 to 64, and 7% of those 65+, use the internet almost constantly.
What is puzzling about the Internet is how something invisible can be so addictive. Here’s an insight into the behavioural patterns of technology addicts online. The top five online activities for internet addicts in China include social networking (94.73%), school work (86.53%), entertainment (82.44%), online gaming (73.42%), and online shopping (33.67%).
- The most rampant types of internet addiction include cybersexual, cyber-relationships, net compulsions, online gaming, and information seeking.
- A whopping 45% or 3.5 billion people in the world are on social media.
- 20% of internet addicts wake up in the middle of the night to check their social accounts.
- 34% of internet addicts access their favorite websites and check for status updates before getting out of bed.
This study also points to other factors for addiction: Absence of siblings leads to lack of emotional support leading to loneliness. Loneliness has been found to be the most important factor in predicting problematic internet use. Some studies indicate a trend toward excessive use of technology among families having a single child. Apparently, 96-98% of users had significant problems due to internet/video game use. Anti-social behaviour in schools and the breakdown of family relationships are also compelling parents, teachers and psychologists to focus on the dangers of digital addiction.
Digital Rehab & battling this new lifestyle disease
It is getting difficult for each of us to get away from technology! Given that 60% of the world’s internet users are addicted to some form of digital medium, it is almost unimaginable to live without some form of connection to technology. Also, modern cultures and lifestyle encourages and legitimizes the use of technology. For instance: Smart homes or remote-based applications in our daily lives are technology-driven solutions. Now that even shopping, grocery-buying, interactions and TV viewing or gaming have gone online, it has become trickier than ever!
Interestingly, 39% of the addicts can easily quit if they wanted to, point some studies. And, if I have to go back to that this teen friend of mine (Internet addict), fortunately, he realised its ill-effects of his life and self-regulated while also finding better things to do with real life. But not everyone is so self-aware and disciplined. Some allow this addiction to destroy their lives and eventually, this affects their families too!
So, how much is too much when it comes to technology? Is there a way out of Internet addiction? Can it be treated through self-corrective behaviour? Does this disorder require rehabilitation or therapy? Are there other methods to this madness? Where does one draw the boundaries?
These questions find their answers in Digital Rehabilitation and Therapy practice which is picking up as the new trend across the globe. Given that Internet Addiction Disorder has been recently recognised as a disease, Internet De-addiction centres are popping up in different parts of the world.
While the US and UK already are seeing a proliferation of such rehab centres, India too is slowly catching up with the world. If one goes by the numbers and addiction rate in India, 53% of Indians are connected to the internet every waking hour which is higher than the global average of 51%. The 53% average is higher than the 36% in China and 39% in Japan.
Given the alarming rate at which India is witnessing a growing addiction rate, Digital Rehab centres have opened doors to addicts in New Delhi, Bangalore and other cities. India got its first centre for dealing with “technology addiction,” the Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic in Bangalore.
“This clinic has treated adolescents between the ages of 14 to 18, who are usually brought in by their parents worried about excessive use of mobile phones or video games.” In a 2016 study by the Indian Council of Medical Research that surveyed over 2,700 Bangalore residents aged between 18 and 65 years, 3.5% of those interviewed admitted to being “addicted” to social networking sites, 1.3% to the internet, and 4.1% their mobile phones.
“The study noted physical or psychological distress in 3% of those “addicted” to social networking sites, 4.2% of those “addicted” to the internet, and 6.8% of those “addicted” to their mobile phones. In a behavioral addiction survey carried out by SHUT clinic on 2,750 people, it revealed the presence of 5 to 7% of addiction to technology in the age group of 18-50 years.”
What is challenging in Internet addiction treatment is there is not enough research on it. Some of the most common treatment options include behavioral modification, equine therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Currently, there are no standardised protocols for treatment.
Going by the rate at which this disorder is gaining traction, it is expected to inspire scientists and medical professionals to come up with a standard diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, this will also inspire many youngsters to take up digital rehabilitation as a future career option and develop relevant skills to survive in a future driven by the Internet.
But, as we go deeper into this, how do we draw the line between good and bad Internet use? How to get addicts to desist from overstepping boundaries that push them into addiction?
According to Sherry Turkle one of the world’s foremost researchers into human-computer interaction and professor at MIT, here are some action steps:
1) Working with companies in terms of design – These tools should not be designed to engage people in the manner of slot machines.
2) Need for a movement on every level to make software transparent. This is a large-scale societal goal.
3) Working with companies to collaborate with consumer groups to end practices that are not in the best interests of the commons or of personal integrity.
4) A fundamental revisiting of the question of who owns your information.
5) A fundamental revisiting of the current practices that any kind of advertisement can be placed online (For example: Ads that are against legal norms, such as ageist, sexist, racist ads).
6) Far more regulation of political ads online.
7) An admission from online companies that they are not ‘just passive internet services.’
8) Finding ways to work with them so that they are willing to accept that they can make a great deal of money even if they accept to be called what they are!
Can technology replace human touch?
Well, the Internet is the greatest challenge we face politically, socially and economically, today. It demands us to follow it, manage it and maybe regulate it at a later stage, depending on how it grows eventually. But, at large, we are also aware that we are ill-prepared for the new psychological world we are creating with the Internet. We make objects that are emotionally powerful; at the same time, we say things such as “technology is just a tool” that deny the power of our creations both on us as individuals and on our culture.
As humans, we need to keep in mind that the goal of every business or consumer or even a designer is to keep the human purpose in mind. That also means maintaining authenticity in human relationships. Similarly, if we look at whether tech can replace the human touch? The answer is a resounding NO! This is also evident from the de-addiction therapies that emphasise the need for human touch or social connections.
Historically, the human race has witnessed several dramatic shifts through different forms of technology and progress. But, many leaders, scientists, tech geeks and designers strongly believe that people will still shape the future and the technologies they design and utilize. To be honest, people and technology have a symbiotic relationship. They can co-exist but not replace humans altogether. As Tesla’s Elon Musk puts it: “Humans are underrated.”
In other words, even Alibaba Founder Jack Ma reflects a sentiment that technology cannot replace the human touch. “A computer is a computer. A computer is just a toy. Man cannot even make a mosquito. So, we should have confidence. Computers only have chips, men have the heart. It’s the heart where the wisdom comes from. My view is that [a] computer may be clever, but human beings are much wiser.”