The beginning of a digital addiction crisis seems to be on the way, and this is no mystery to many people. A report published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing details the cunning strategies used by tech companies to facilitate the addictive qualities of their products as marketing tools.
Addictions are formed when rewarding stimuli are regularly consumed, creating changes in the brain’s chemistry that make us dependant on the reward. In 2014, it was found that in 31 countries, the prevalence of internet addiction made up around six per cent of the population. We can only assume this number will continue to increase as technology advances and evolves.
Technology is not addictive on its own, as is tobacco, alcohol, or sugar products. Because of this, companies need to be more vigilant when selling their products. The technology conditions the user to become addicted to it. It begins with advertising, which is used to sell the rewards and benefits of using a product to the consumer in an appealing way. Once the product has been bought, they continue by reinforcing those benefits with regular cues. For example, notifications tell us when important information is available. The information is linked to the cue, so when the notification is heard the brain signals the release of dopamine and you feel compelled to look at your device.
The availability of internet allows people to use their devices anywhere they want. With free Wi-Fi at coffee shops and other stores, as well as mobile data enabling people to access the internet anywhere at any time, addictive behaviour is not limited to home or work. The rise of microtransactions in games gives people the feeling that they are being blocked from moving forward, and so they begin to feel pressured that they need to spend money in order to succeed.
While many of the bigger tech companies have not made substantial changes to reduce device addiction, there are ways for government policy to reduce its prevalence.
The first way is through education. Teaching how to manage technology in schools and pressing companies to have greater transparency about their products will create a more widespread understanding of the inner workings of technology. Another way is to enforce policy that informs people of the potential dangers of using the product itself. As is done with cigarette packaging, new laws can press tech companies to label their products with warnings that list all the potential harms of device addiction. Finally, policy can be put in place that deters the addictive behaviour itself. The ban on texting and driving is one of these policies already in effect and requires that people fight the urges of technology use while driving or be charged with an offence.
The rise of universal technology use by people around the world has built momentum and will not slow down. It is best that we focus on solving the problems that come with technology-use and better inform the general population on how device and internet addiction can be managed.