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Self-help—and self-blame—won’t fix the tech addiction crisis

Resolving to reduce your screen time isn’t enough. Collective action is necessary, writes this law professor in an excerpt from her new book.

Self-help—and self-blame—won’t fix the tech addiction crisis
[Source photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash]

I always had a complicated relationship with technology. I would like it, then realize I like it too much, and then try to disentangle from it. I went through several cycles of this. As a young girl in the 1970s, I spent far too much time playing video games. Then in the 1990s, I spent every spare minute during one college semester playing a dungeon treasure hunt computer game. I stopped only after I convinced a friend to place a password on the game to prevent my access. Then came email. I simply could not stop checking it. In my first apartment in New York City as a graduate student, I endlessly connected and disconnected my modem to check my emails. But for me and for many others, 2009 was the year when things started changing. This was the year that smartphones and Facebook became popular. Suddenly, we could text, email, access the internet, and engage in social interactions practically anywhere and anytime.

These days, I am an academic. I spend much of my time researching and writing on my laptop. I am also the mom of three kids. I value efficiency. I can’t really afford not to. For over a decade, I often sat down to write at my regular table at the coffee shop near my apartment. I took out my laptop, my iPhone, and my Kindle. I wrote down my list of tasks for the day. But then two and a half hours later, with little writing done and feeling drained, I wondered what happened. The answer was usually texts and emails, but more than anything, uncontrollable internet browsing: news sites, blogs, Facebook. Every click triggered another.

I tried making different choices for myself but by 2017, I wanted to do more than fight my personal battles. I launched an outreach program for school-aged children and their parents, which went beyond privacy to tackle technology overuse. I hoped to help kids and parents realize how much time they spent on screens and the price they paid for it. When I started speaking to parents, my main goal was to bring awareness to the topic. But by the second year, I had encountered a sense of guilt and helplessness I had not anticipated. Parents came to hear my talks because they were desperate. They felt personally responsible for losing their children to their screens.

I was conflicted about what should be done. Like many, I liked a lot of things about online technology. I opened every lecture pointing out the advantages of connectivity. I talked about kids speaking to grandparents on Skype; the convenience of shopping online; and the wonders of having so much information at our fingertips. I did not believe, and still do not believe, that technology is bad. I did think, though, that we needed a better online–offline balance. So, faced by despair, I offered self-help methods, suggesting ways to limit kids’ screen time. I suspected that technology companies purposefully designed their technologies to make sure we spend more time online.

Still, I did not explicitly say this in my lectures. I was a lawyer who shied away from conflict and opted instead to become a law professor. Unsurprisingly, I was reluctant to come out and say that Facebook, who sought “to connect the world,” or Google, whose motto was “Do no evil,” were the bad guys.

But then things changed. Inside information from the tech titans leaked out. Whistleblower after whistleblower explained how tech companies use known principles of psychology to manipulate our brains to addict us. They lure us to spend longer time online by giving us rewards intermittently, on an irregular schedule. When rewards are unpredictable, our brains release stronger surges of dopamine – the brain neuro-transmitter responsible for pleasure. For example, tech companies designed the popular “pull to refresh” feature. On Facebook, we keep pulling to check if we got our “reward”: a like or a comment. Every time we get a “reward,” we receive a burst of dopamine; we then keep pulling to refresh in anticipation of our next dopamine infusion. Tech companies also took away our stopping signals. One of their popular design features is “autoplay.” On YouTube, when one video ends, the next automatically begins. This makes it harder to stop. These are just a few of the tools in tech companies’ kits to ensure we stay hooked.

While information trickled out about how the tech industry manipulates us to prolong our time online, data accumulated about the harms of extended screen time. Researchers published significant findings, based on psychological studies and brain scans, of how excessive screen time affects kids’ cognitive development and mental health; of how some of us become addicted and many, while not qualifying as clinically addicted, still manifest symptoms of overuse that resemble addiction. Other investigations uncovered the impact on our ability to connect with one another, and even worse the disconnection and social division. With all we now know, it seems increasingly unlikely that we would have opted for all of this, had we known this information around 2009, when we had the opportunity to choose.

This shed light on what I had observed. Our self-help efforts mostly failed to reduce our time online. The parents I lectured to felt desperate and powerless because their efforts had not helped their families. Self-help measures gave us the illusion that we were in control, while in fact we were not. Surveys reflected this, showing that screentime had not decreased; if anything it was on the increase. I realized that, while we kept blaming ourselves, we were not really the choice- makers. The technology industry was calling the shots.

By the fall of 2019 my lectures to parents changed. I wanted to alleviate their sense of helplessness, but I realized I should not reinforce their illusion of control by focusing on self-help strategies. I knew then that real change could only come if we shifted from focusing on personal responsibility to making technology companies accountable for their addictive design choices. I started talking more and more to parents, not about what they should do at home, but about what they could do in the outside world to pressure the technology industry and the government to fix the problem.

Then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. While technology preserved a semblance of normal life as we went into lockdowns, days spent on screens also underscored the harms. They illuminated the future we had mindlessly approached before the pandemic. We pain- fully felt the cost of no face-to-face interaction. We could no longer deny the price our children were paying. At the same time, the extremes of pandemic life also highlighted the possibility of a different trajectory. The option of changing tracks and taking action to prevent a future we never intentionally chose for ourselves.

Selecting the right moment to end scientific debate and formulate law and policy is always difficult. Making decisions too early, before all the facts are in, could be premature. But the pandemic underscored the other danger: we may err toward waiting too long and missing the window of opportunity for change. The realizations brought on by the pandemic occurred simultaneously with alarms from medical professionals and journalists alerting us to the escalating social and public health crises. Experts explicitly warned that we are running a dangerous uncontrolled experiment on a whole generation of children.

I write this to highlight the other option: the collective action alternative to failing individual battles. Connectivity is here to stay. It has many advantages. But to regain what we have lost, we need to stop blaming ourselves and engage in concerted legal action to exert pressure on governments and the real choice-maker – the technology industry – to redesign products and spaces in a way that will put us back in the driver’s seat.

Still a movement to reassert our control over our time could not depend on lawyers alone. We who pay the price of technology overuse need to push for change for ourselves and for our children. Change is possible. Today, we cannot picture a bar without phones consuming the attention of every patron. Neither could we imagine smokeless bars in the 1980s. But by the beginning of the twenty-first century, that had become our reality.

Excerpted from Unwired: Gaining Control over Addictive Technologies by Gaia Bernstein. Copyright 2023 Gaia Bernstein. Published by Cambridge University Press and reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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Gaia Bernstein is professor and codirector of the Institute for Privacy Protection at Seton Hall University School of Law. More

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