Holtzman: Tech companies are finally acknowledging their role in tech addiction. Now what?

Rachel Holtzman, Columnist

I recently came across a tweet that read, “College is mostly just sitting with a laptop in different places.” I read it on my iPhone, which had been in my hand for several hours as I sent emails, listened to podcasts and mindlessly refreshed a few apps. Friends of mine have tried “tech detoxes” lately, all to no avail. It’s enough to make me wonder whether we as users — especially young ones — aren’t fully to blame when being tech savvy veers into a tech addiction. Many psychologists already acknowledge social media’s impact on mental health, but few people talk about the addictive nature of the actual devices we use.

According to many journalists, investors and even former Apple and Google designers, companies design the products we use to keep us coming back for more. Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” says that the use of quick notifications and blinking colors on apps and devices essentially trains us to become distracted, jump from one thing to another and crave the next notification. According to Price, people may spend an average of four hours a day on their phones engaged directly with the screen, not counting time spent listening to music or podcasts.

Just as we create new schedules and adapt to them every quarter, we’ve learned to adapt to picking up our phones multiple times an hour. In fact, apps and devices are designed and marketed to investors with the promise that they can change consumer behavior over time. The sense of anticipation we get from a buzz or notification feeds into that loop. While there are great benefits from social connection and the use of technology, it’s clear that as we grew up, we learned how to live with it a little too well. Our new challenge is learning how to build, buy and demand devices that give us the connection and access we expect without inducing psychological cravings.

Those little cravings can add up. As we endlessly refresh Twitter and Instagram, respond to every buzz and start to get satisfaction from notifications as they roll in, our brains experience an increase in dopamine, training us to get pleasure from those intermittent notifications. Because people want more of that happy feeling, they learn how to play by the rules of an app or device to get more notifications — and that can have major consequences for our mental health, increasing our risks for anxiety, depression and suicide.

Even the engineers who designed our user experiences are starting to regret their choices. It may seem counterintuitive for Silicon Valley to curb its own success; clearly, they created the design that caught on with billions of people. However, it’s a sign that even industry insiders recognize the effects of tech addiction and see a need for change. Emphasizing the impact of the design of our devices, from a central button to an all-or-nothing notification setting, Apple investors and an early ex-designer from the Center for Humane Technology have called for the company to design less addictive devices.

Ironically, it will take more technology and social media to save us from ourselves. But if it’s better designed with our worst impulses in mind, we might be able to strike a balance. Organizations like CHT will obviously still need an internet connection and a social media platform to get their message out, but experts suggest that a few simple changes to our devices could make a difference.

If Apple integrated its usage tracker into a weekly update, along with prompts for the user to decide if they want help reducing their time in certain apps, that could be a major step in the right direction. Making a switch from blue to red light on electronic devices at night — which can prevent sleep deprivation — could be highlighted as part of a main panel, rather than hidden in a settings tab. Designers have already been working to create a user experience as enjoyable as possible, but a few have already built products to protect our health. Now, we need to encourage Silicon Valley to make that shift and follow through as buyers.

I know that after this column is published, I’ll retweet it on Twitter, check my engagement stats and refresh Facebook to see how many likes I get. In an industry and a generation trained to tap into digital tics, it makes sense. Still, I hope that, for all our sakes, the next generation of designers finds ways to let us set down our phones and disengage from time to time without getting caught by the notifications designed to distract us.

Rachel Holtzman is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.