Thursday, May 28

SMARTPHONES, IPADS AND GAMES ADDICTION: BOOK REVIEW OF “IRRESISTIBLE: WHY YOU ARE ADDICTED TO TECHNOLOGY AND HOW TO SET YOURSELF FREE” BY ADAM ALTER

Our myopia at times makes us vulnerable in all sorts of ways. Product manufacturers are fully aware of this loophole in the brain and do not hesitate from exploiting it. What I am talking about is short term pleasures – addictive pleasures. You don’t need to be a genius to realise that nowadays almost everyone is addicted to smartphones to a varying degree. Everyone is indulging their not so free time looking at the screens. Undoubtedly, behavioural addiction is fast becoming much more common albeit less understood. Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free (Vintage, 2017) believes that most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day.

What is alarming about all this is that the age of the addicts is getting younger and younger. Parents are buying separate iPads and PS4s for their kids to keep them busy, reducing any interaction and socialising time with the family. According to Adam Alter, “Parents with younger kids do even more damage when they constantly check their phones and tablets.” He argues that “infants instinctively follow their parents’ eyes. Distracted parents cultivate distracted children, because parents who can’t focus teach their children the same attentional patterns.”

Many parents are ignorant of the addictive nature of mobile apps. Recently, I discussed this with a local friend. He owns a local mobiles and games consoles repair shop. He told me about a customer who came to his shop with six consoles needing repairs. When asked why he has six, the explanation was that each of his four children has their own PS4. If and when a console needs repair, the child demanded an immediate replacement. Then, I wondered whether such parents are aware of the consequences of their actions. Just like substance addiction, behavioural addiction is equally destructive. There is an abundance of scientific evidence to suggest that there is no difference in the brain’s response to addictive behaviours and drug abuse.

Maybe this is why most of the CEOs of major IT corporations have strict rules at homes and do not allow their own children to use the very same products they are selling to the public.

What is Addiction?
Alter explains it well, “addiction is a deep attachment to an experience that is harmful and difficult to do without.” This means addiction involves emotions, you feel compelled to go through the behavioural experience despite its potential harm in the long run. Without realising we self-sabotage by convincing ourselves psychologically to continue with the harmful behaviour. There is psychological reasoning behind this. By exercising the addictive behaviour, we find relief from an intense psychological pain that takes place unless we submit to it. The mind learns to associate behaviour with relief from psychological pain. Thus, “Addiction is really about the relationship between the person and the experience.”

In my view, addiction is not dissimilar to a parasite that steals time, energy and emotions. Addiction, in reality, is a “loss disguised as a win.” You can be sure of an addiction, “when a person can’t resist a behaviour, which, despite addressing a deep psychological need in the short-term, produces significant harm in the long-term.

It means as addicts we choose to opt for short term pleasures. You are most certainly addicted to a smartphone if you consciously or unconsciously have developed a habit of picking up your phone about three times an hour. Some researchers have coined the term “nomophobia” (an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”) to describe a prevalent behaviour – the fear of being without a mobile phone contact. It is no surprise then that as many as 40 percent of the population suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction.

The Scale of the Problem
Probably the most interesting question to ask ourselves would be; do we really want to get rid of our addictions? The answer may surprise you. The author mentions recent research where “46 percent of people said they couldn’t bear to live without their smartphones (some would rather suffer physical injury than an injury to their phones).”

The problem with smartphone addiction is the younger you are the more vulnerable you are to adopting addictive behaviours. Alter says that “very few people develop addictions later in life if they haven’t been addicted in adolescence.” This is probably because younger children’s brains lack tools needed to realise and appreciate early on that ‘harmonious passions make life worth living, whereas an obsessive passion plagues the mind.’ Spending long hours playing games not only damages their health, but it also deprives the children of practical skills they should be learning during this stage of their lives.

This article is not all doom and gloom. Please, do not misunderstand. As RTM readers know very well, the human mind is potentially more powerful than it is potentially vulnerable. It has an incredible capacity to heal itself. It just needs the right conditions and a healthy environment. Human nature is to thrive and excel, not to become an addict.

Addictive Personality
It is very difficult to discern or identify who may or may not have an addictive personality. As Alter says, “Addicts aren’t simply weaker specimens than non-addicts; they aren’t morally corrupt where non-addicts are virtuous. Instead, many, if not most, of them are unlucky.” If it is not the personality then what is it? Personally, I think it is about boredom. The most difficult part for a lot of people is dealing with boredom. It is for this reason that “most people prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.” This means our focus for finding a solution for addiction needs to be within the realms of boredom or what we sometimes consider as free time.

Solutions for Behavioural Addiction
The first mistake most people make when considering overcoming addiction is to suppress it. And most likely, this is a recipe for failure. Alter also thinks that, “suppression alone doesn’t work – but suppression paired with distraction works pretty well.” In other words, we need to replace our addictive behaviours with a better and useful alternative. This also means we need to pay more attention to our habits.  Changing addictive habits is not that easy. So, how to change a habit? Alter mentions a method developed by Charles Duhigg, called the Golden Rule:

“According to the Golden Rule, habits consist of three parts: a cue (whatever prompts the behaviour); a routine (the behaviour itself); and a reward (the payoff that trains our brains to repeat the habit in the future). The best way to overcome a bad habit or an addiction is to keep the cue and the reward consistent while changing the routine – by replacing the original behaviour with a distraction.”

It is worth remembering that when developing any new habit, it is easier to strike the right balance earlier than to correct unhealthy patterns later, says Alter. Similarly, it is a misconception that with sheer willpower you can overcome addiction. The best way is to avoid temptation in the first place. Remember, addiction does not need to be a life sentence as early intervention can help and we have huge potential at our disposal to heal, and to restore the mind.

Lastly, I want to add that one should remain positive and optimistic minded when considering making life-changing decisions. Positive-attitude helps you get through the difficult periods, whereas negativity drains you of the much-needed energy. This is also the message I felt Adam Alter wanted to give to the readers throughout his book. I found the book to be easy to read, lucid and at times thought-provoking. He has written it as an easy to follow self-help type of book which is equally relevant to professionals as well as ordinary readers. The book is filled with a wealth of ideas and discusses different types of addictions. Most importantly the book offers many solutions in detail, I could only mention a few.

The book does make you realise how important it is for us to assess our habits and to replace any bad habits with good ones. The most valuable thing in life is time; we should appreciate our time and try to be productive as much as possible. I agree with Adam Alter that any technology (including smartphones) isn’t morally good or bad until it’s wielded by the corporations that fashion it for mass consumption. There are many Apps which are designed to promote rich social connections. Unfortunately, many tech developments do promote addiction. The Like button on social media is a good example. We need to be aware of our vulnerabilities and not allow App sellers to take over our lives.

Don’t gift your kids the virtual world, show them the natural world.

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