Social media addiction is good for advertisers, not so good for our brains

I have so many phone chargers that don’t belong to me scattered around my apartment I’m considering opening a side business selling phone chargers.

We’ve reached peak smartphone dependency: We’re at the point where many people my age find it necessary to carry a phone charger with them at all times due to their prolific phone use (although to be fair a lot of smartphones have terrible battery life).

It’s kind of simultaneously sad and hilarious to watch someone check their Facebook while plugged into the wall — quite literally tethered to their phone.

They say the first step in overcoming addiction is acknowledging it, and I am hereby making an attempt to do so: I too am a technology addict. Studies show the average smartphone user checks their phone about 200 times a day. I could easily see myself falling within that range. Checking my phone at times is a compulsion; I’ll be standing in a line up and find myself browsing through Facebook or Twitter, absentmindedly, not searching for anything in particular.

The need to constantly check our phones is comparable to a gambler finding reassurance at the slots with every loud jangle announcing a win, or to an alcoholic finding comfort in each sip of booze.  There is evidence that each time you check your phone and see a new ‘like’ on Facebook or Instagram, or even a text from a friend, a part of our brain is stimulated and craves more. So we are encouraged to post more photos, for more likes, in a revolving wheel of broadcasting mostly useless information to the world to receive a kind of tacit validation that it matters, to someone, somewhere.

This constant exchange of information (however useless it may be) has had a definite effect on our brains. A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada finds that the average human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013.

The average attention span of a gold fish is nine seconds.

That same report finds that “connected consumers” are better at doing more with less “via shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory.”

What more could an advertiser ask for?

I don’t think it’s farfetched to argue that our increasing dependence on social networks is no accident. Advertising agencies (Facebook being one of the largest) know the longer our eyeballs are on their platforms, the more ads we see. There was a time when media publications (like this one) would try to attract and retain readers with quality content.

With the digital revolution, all it takes to lure you back is to remind you that someone ‘liked’ that photo you posted of your cat.

Pokémon Go is the ultimate example of the need to constantly seek out digital validation. Collecting Pokémon is kind of like collecting Facebook likes, except that it gives you something tangible that you can brag about and show off to your friends.

The thing with an alcoholic or gambling addict is that they usually run out of money at some point and hit rock bottom. Running out of data, or battery power, does not have quite the same effect.

So what does it look like when a smartphone addict hits rock bottom? Warning signs include being more interested in online conversations than ones going on right in front of you, a feeling of panic when you reach low battery power, and as previously stated, an unhealthy attachment to ones’ charging cable. The solution? A good start would probably be powering down the smartphone and remembering there’s a life outside the digital domain.


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