Last February — before the pandemic hits — I was invited to the TEDx stage to deliver an in-person speech about the harmful effects of the Internet on the human mind and its greater implications for our society. The talk has attracted over 14 thousand views and was translated into six different languages.
After receiving many requests and suggestions from you guys, I have decided to create this article, which builds upon and expands this talk. Thank you so much for your interest and support!
Before I delve into the main topic, I would like to ask you a question: Are you annoyed by the symbols below? I bet many of you do.
Why am I asking you this question? Well, there is a phenomenon that really baffled me called the “productivity paradox.” From 1971 to 2015, an era known as the Digital Revolution, the world witnessed the rapid introduction of the internet, computer, smartphone, and so on. Hardly anyone nowadays can work or live without these technological marvels above. Indeed, throughout this time, the number of transistors per microprocessor – an indicator of technological capabilities – doubles every two years. This is known as Moore’s law. Yet, during this same period, worker productivity growth goes down instead of goes up. What the aforementioned paradox tells us is that as technology becomes more advanced and readily available – which should have supposedly made our jobs easier and more efficient – the marginal gain in our output actually decreases.
So what’s wrong? What is going on exactly with our productivity growth? While there are obviously many other factors to be blamed for this phenomenon — such as an aging workforce due to shifting demographics — one thing that especially catches my attention (since I was also a “victim” of it) is our addiction to technological distraction. With a plethora of information accessible right in your palm — from irresistible clickbait headlines like “Top 17 most shocking truth about blah blah blah. You won’t believe number 9!” to Reddit threads, YouTube videos, social media hashtags, and “you may also like” suggestions at the bottom of every single article — we are being directed to an unlimited number of mostly useless content. And before you even notice, it’s already 11:00 PM, and your assignment is due at midnight! You feel bad, work like hell to meet the deadline, promise to yourself that this would never ever happen again, and then you do it all over again. Many of us often blamed losing sleep on our heavy workload, yet we often ignored the procrastination propelled by technologies that actually consumed our time.
The bad news is, it doesn’t stop there. After I escape from the prison of internet addiction, I sometimes found myself haunted by an image that I was once a part of. A group of friends came to a coffee shop, take a selfie, post to Instagram, and then – silence – everyone was scrolling while sipping the coffee. A classmate ranted because his Netflix video buffered for 10 seconds. A girl cried over her boyfriend’s “late response” – “it’s been ten minutes, and he hasn’t replied to me,” she said. A guy screamed over a 15 second YouTube advertisement and kept clicking the “Skip ads” button. This is why I am asking you the question above.
Just like substance addiction, our craving for instant gratification from an infinite supply of information not only eats away our time but also rewires our brain, making us less tolerant of delayed gratification; in other words, we become more impatient. Back to the good old days, we have the patience to go to the video rental shop, walk across the aisle searching for a DVD, come home, and insert it into the player just to watch a movie (not to mention you often have to hit it a few times to make it work). Now, even a few seconds of buffering on YouTube or Netflix can drive our nerves.
“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting. It’s as if they’re taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface, and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back.”Aza Raskin, the creator of infinite scroll
The problem is, it’s not our fault. Every site and app, from Facebook to YouTube, are intentionally and deliberately designed to be addictive. “If You’re Not Paying For It, You Become The Product.” Unlike a newspaper subscription, social media apps don’t charge you a cent for using their products (obviously, you still have to pay for the internet fees). Instead, these companies make money by selling your data. That’s exactly why you see ads about hotel deals on Facebook when you search for a flight on Google. The more you use their products, the more data they have to sell to advertisers. To facilitate this, companies spent lots of money to fund R&D research teams that dedicated to maximizing your usage time. They invented features like infinite scroll (which allows you to seamlessly scroll down instead of having to turn the pages), real-time notification about everything from likes, comments to emails, mentions, etc. are intended to keep you in a vicious cycle of stimulus and stay in the apps for as long as possible. Aza Raskin, the creator of infinite scroll himself once said, “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting. It’s as if they’re taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface, and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back.”
By not giving your brain time to catch up with these impulses, these so-called digital marvels are actually more effective than cocaine and alcohol in establishing dependency, according to a 2015 study by researchers at the Arizona State University (ASU). Similarly, a 2019 international study suggested that excessive social media usage can compromise our decision-making capabilities similar to drug addiction. This is extremely concerning, considering that children nowadays are given access to technology at a very young age. Just like substance abuse, the internet’s capability of hooking young people by constantly releasing dopamine in their brain can produce a new generation that is more impatient, unproductive, and toxic.
The good news is, it’s never too late to rehabilitate. While I may not be in the best position to give you specific medical advice, one approach that worked quite well for me is designating a particular screen-free time. At first, it would be tough and counterintuitive – even futile – to resist the temptation. So it might be helpful to start small, maybe just 30 minutes a day, and then increase it gradually. I suggest surrendering all your electronic devices to a trusted friend during this screen-free time. During this time, you can try to read a book, go for a walk, or take a few minutes of meditation to allow your brain, especially the reward system, to quiet down and recover.
The first step in every recovery, whether it is a substance or behavioral abuse, is to accept the fact that you are being addicted. It would be a difficult journey, but remember, the rewards are worth it. By regaining control of your mind and escaping from the prison of constant distraction built by technology, you are regaining the energy and time of your life, those that can be used to finish your work on time, gain more sleep, hit the gym, call your grandmother or contemplate about life.