The New Luddites on iPhone Addiction

Farhad Manjoo writing for the New York Times has a particularly silly article on “Tech addiction” and how it’s up to Apple to fix it. The Apple part is the usual Tech Press anti-Apple nonsense. Given that Apple has a relatively small share of the smart phone market, it’s hard to see why Apple—and only Apple—should be responsible for fixing it. The Macalope does his usual fine job of mocking and demolishing Manjoo’s article but I’m not interested in the Apple aspect so much as the whole idea of “tech addiction.”

The notion of tech addiction is popular among the new Luddites and we keep seeing articles about its horrors and how it’s leading to the imminent demise of our children’s mental health. As even Manjoo admits, tech addiction isn’t a real addiction like drugs or alcohol can be. So what is it? Is it even a real thing? John Gruber doesn’t think so and neither do I.

The new Luddites like to point to psychology studies that have examined the putative problem but these studies are from a field that has a reproducibility rate of less than 50%. That’s less accurate than flipping a coin. Why should we credit anything they say? It always ends up that they find that kids would rather interact with their friends on their smart phones than listen to adults talk about things they don’t care about. Do we really need psychologists to tell us that?

If you think you have a problem with using your smart phone too much, delete your Facebook and Twitter accounts. They’re only exploiting you anyway. If that doesn’t work, get rid of your smart phone or seek help. It’s not up to Apple or any other company to solve the problem for you.

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  • Peter Tomhas

    Aw, c'mon jcs, that's not up to your usual level of thoughtfulness. So "all" someone has to do is delete the relevant apps/services; just like "all" someone has to do to lose weight is stop eating so much? Well, yes, of course, but the issue is that many -- most? -- people find that incredibly hard to do. Someone is fat not because they eat too much, but because they *want* -- i.e. their brain's "wanting" circuits fire up a lot -- to eat to much. Sure, it's not an "addiction" a la the DSM -- it's not clear that, for example, there is such a thing as genuine physical withdrawal after ditching Facebook. But that's relevant only because the DSM has grabbed the term for its own (and made the presence of physical withdrawal a necessary condition for a diagnosis of addiction), not least because it makes it easier to deal with insurance companies. But if we let the psych docs have their word, still could FB and the like not be regarded as "compelling", as in forming the basis of a compulsion? Of course they can -- for sure we don't need psychologists to tell us that, just look around. It's like the compulsions some experience when faced with gambling, or sex, or scratching their arm to the point of bleeding even. This is a vast and ancient problem; that of akrasia, and so in that sense there is no news here. But what *is* new is the amplification effects of social media on these basic human tendencies. Just as avoiding "fake news" used to consist simply of steering clear of the local village idiot but now requires a monumental effort in staying vigilant, so too avoiding the downsides of too much familiarity with the occasional and limited dopaminergic pleasures of chatting to the local village gossip have now become a far more tempting and potentially ensnaring assault on neural reward systems. You even appear to leave room for all of that when you advise on solutions to those who think they have a problem. What you're downplaying (far too much) however, is the fact that it for many it is a *highly* non-trivial challenge to give up these stimuli, and, I suspect, one that whether or not Apple, Facebook and so on are free from responsibility to help us, they are actively trying to hinder us. Nicotine is addictive, even if the cigarette companies are not bound to help addicts; and many aspects of social media services are compulsive, even if the companies providing those services are off the hook too. And we haven't even mentioned the damage that social media is doing to another aspect of our mental lives -- that hugely valuable but limited resource called attention.

    • jcs

      Peter, this comment was not appearing for some reason--probably because of its length. I had to do a manual moderation. That's why it didn't appear right away.

      To the substance, your argument presupposes exactly what I'm suggesting doesn't really exist: tech addiction. Are a few disturbed people obsessive about social media? Sure, probably, just as there are people who are afraid of door knobs but I'm very skeptical that "tech addiction is an endemic problem of the magnitude suggested by the press. They've been pushing this nonsense for a long time and it doesn't ring any truer today than it did in 2011.

      Regardless, I don't see how Apple is doing anything other than providing the best product they can or why it somehow falls on them to "fix" a problem that doesn't affect the vast majority of people. I'm morally certain that that part of the article was just click bait. In any event, if you're concerned with FB and the like, talk to them not Apple.