Motivations behind “screentime addiction”

As we look around society, we see screens and digital devices everywhere. Chances are, we need to look up from our own devices to see others as they use devices. There is little debate about the ubiquitous presence of screens and technology in our lives.

But, there is a larger question about whether or not we are truly addicted to these devices. Parents have concerns about their children being addicted to these screens and spaces. Teachers comment on how students are unable, or unwilling to unplug. Some honest and forthright adults may look at their own use of technology and indicate that they feel addicted to our cell phones and digital, social spaces.

Is this an addiction?

Is screentime addiction real? News reports and parent-friendly blog posts will use the term “addiction” and equate these devices to a form of “digital heroin.” Is this a real concern?

My feeling is that this is not an addiction, and should not be referred to as an “addiction.” But, the real answer is a bit nuanced. The following quote from Wired unpacks this a bit:

Except that actual experts are still debating whether “addiction” is the right term for the relationship between humans and smartphones. Some say technology is not a drug like tobacco but rather a behavioral addiction, like gambling. Others say the addiction metaphor is unnecessarily alarmist and that the studies linking depression and smartphone usage only show correlation, not causation. But even major tech companies have acknowledged that their products can make us feel bad and promised to be more mindful of their users—perhaps the best data point yet that our smartphone attachment is cause for concern.

Put simply, it’s not entirely the devices that are at fault. We carry around supercomputers that are equipped with gorgeous screens, and Internet connectivity. We can achieve incredible things with these tools.

Yet, businesses make a lot of money off of our attention to these spaces. Incredible amounts of resources are spent to develop more signals that will keep you tuned in and paying attention to those devices. Seeking that little flood of energy when you get a new social media like, envy on Instagram, or FOMO-driven zombie scroll. All of these behaviors benefit the companies that bring you these technologies.

Behaviorist cues

Behaviorist learning theory, a philosophy that maintains that a well-rounded understanding of the relationship between stimulus and response can promote desired behaviors within an individual has long been regarded as inconsequential to educators attempting to adapt to the needs of a 21st century learner.

Behaviorism as an educational learning theory led to the development of several aspects of instruction and learning production, some of which we still use in classrooms today, including direct instruction, lecture, behavioral objective as classroom management, behavioral reward system, positive reinforcement, and individualized instruction, among other notions. We can see some of these same cues, reward systems, and behavior modifications built in to the social networks, apps, and digital tools we use on a daily basis.

Smartphones and social apps make use of these interactions to adapt to the data we give it, and learn more ways to keep us engaged and paying attention. The tools, and the developers that create them, take this information and refine the services and signals to cater to our own individual vulnerabilities.

Another quote from the Wired post expands on this:

B. J. Fogg, founder of Stanford’s Persuasion Lab, whose students went on to work for Facebook, Instagram, Uber, and Google, developed a psychological model that combined three factors to prompt a particular behavior: trigger, motivation, and ability. Take Facebook photos, for example: You get a push notification that you’ve been tagged in a photo (trigger), you want to make sure you look OK in the pic (motivation), and you can easily and immediately check the photo on your phone (ability).

This feedback loop keeps you engaged, paying attention, and willing to come back soon for more stimulus. If you choose to delay that interaction, the app or network will be sure to send you a notification with the accompanying buzz, flashing lights, or warning in your notification panel.

So what do we do?

I think one of the first things to do is acknowledge our role as users of these technologies. We have a choice to utilize them, and give them our most valuable resource…our attention. Adults often complain that we “don’t have enough time.” Yet, we’re more than willing to gladly hand over hours using our devices.

Choosing not to define this as an “addiction” empowers the user and enables us to think about our own behaviors. We can work to keep ourselves accountable, and not expect that the creators of these services, apps, and networks have our best interests at stake.

As users of these technologies, we have to acknowledge the challenges, and modify our own behaviors to address our concerns. In my house, we recognize that certain foods are not healthy and we strive to keep them out of our house. If we do consume them, we try to remedy the situation by getting rid of the foods, and replacing them with healthy options.

I think there is a parallel to our relationships with screens and devices. I’m motivated by Anya Kamenetz in The Art of Screentime. In this she states that we should “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.” In our daily behaviors, this may involve plugging in the devices when we enter the house, and leaving them there for the night. This may also include leaving the phone in the glove box while driving, and not peeking at the notifications. There are other opportunities to be more intentional about how and when I choose to utilize these tools and not allow them to modify my behaviors.

In turn, I also need to use my role as a parent and educator to make sure my children and students don’t consider this to be an addiction. Instead there is an opportunity to empower ourselves to think about behavioral management and the value of our attention.

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<span class='p-author h-card'>Ian O'Byrne</span> Written by:

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne is a educator, researcher, & speaker. His work centers on teaching, learning, and technology. He investigates the literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online & hybrid spaces.

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