We don’t need tech to become less addictive — we just need it to be better

  • The tech industry has been under increased scrutiny lately over the potential negative effects of its products.
  • Many critics are charging that smartphones, social networks, and other tech products and services are encouraging “addiction” – but that’s likely overstating the case. Few people’s interactions with their devices or services actually meet the definition of addiction.
  • The real problem with tech products is not that they encourage addiction, but that they’re annoying and disruptive – and that’s something tech companies need to fix.

The tech industry is experiencing a whole new wave of backlash and scrutiny.

This time, it’s not about fake news or Nazis spreading venom on Twitter. Instead, the focus is on the harmful effects tech products have on users – and the charge that use of the gadgets and services is leading to addiction, perhaps intentionally.

Earlier this month, for example, a group of Apple shareholders expressed concern that kids were become addicted to their iPhones and urged the company to do something about it. Last fall, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya charged that social networks were “destroying how society works.” Meanwhile, Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, has been repeatedly beating the drum about tech addiction, telling The Guardian last year that “our minds can be hijacked” by our gadgets and apps.

And that’s not to mention the growing numbers of tech executives and other industry figures who have started to raise alarms about the supposedly addictive nature of the industry’s products.

These critiques generally boil down to the assertion that tech companies are purposefully and nefariously building products in ways that are designed to mess with users’ minds. The more minutes Facebook or Twitter can keep your eyeballs glued to their services, the more attractive and valuable they are to the advertisers who are paying them for your attention.

So tech companies do whatever they can to keep you coming back, goes the charge, intentionally creating features such as “likes” and “replies” that are designed to tap into the dopamine effect – the chemically induced good feeling you get in response to positive stimuli.

But I think the critics are being a little too free and easy with the charge that tech products are causing addiction.

Yes, there are likely many people out there who have become so obsessed with their devices or apps or online services that their attachment to them is having negative effects on their lives. Those people should absolutely get help and find ways to wean themselves off of tech.

The vast majority of tech users aren’t in that boat

“Addiction is a specific, compulsive behaviour,” said Nir Eyal, the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-forming Products.”

Eyal, who advises tech companies on how to create ethical products that don’t harm users, added: “For example, I’m not addicted to Facebook unless I can’t stop even if I want to. Very few people are actually addicted to tech.”

Instead of addiction, the problem most tech users face is their devices and services are annoying and disruptive. It’s easy to feel stressed out or overloaded because of them.

In other words, the tech industry doesn’t need to worry about making its products less addictive. It needs to focus on making them better.

Earlier this week, the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo offered some ideas for how Apple could “build a less addictive iPhone.” Among his solutions were giving users a greater ability to tailor notifications and providing them with more data on how much they’re using their devices.

Whether or not such changes will do much for the relative few who actually are addicted to their smartphones, the proposals would represent a great start for making devices work better for all of us.

For example, unless there’s a real emergency going on, there’s no reason after you’ve left the office that your phone should buzz incessantly with work-related alerts. Yet I find that happening all the time, thanks to Slack, the chat app we use at work. In its latest update, Slack reduced the amount of control users have over the types of notifications they receive.

Given just how distracting such notifications can be, the app’s developers should have done a better job of thinking through the changes, because ultimately they’re bad for the company itself. Slack doesn’t benefit by turning users into harried workaholics. Instead, it benefits by helping them be better workers.

Tech gadgets and services are supposed to play useful roles in our lives – helping us work, entertaining us, assisting us in solving everyday problems. But too often these products go overboard demanding our attention – without giving us much ability to turn them off. The makers of tech products need to be putting more thought into their design to head off such problems.

The good news is some tech companies are already doing that

Last year, Apple introduced a new feature for the iPhone that blocks alerts while you’re driving, even making the screen go completely dark until you get out of your car.

And just last week, Facebook announced that it’s revamping the way its news feed works, giving more prominence to posts from people close to you and playing down posts from companies and publishers that are all too often little more than clickbait. Company officials acknowledged the change could reduce the amount of time users spend on its service – thus making it less attractive to advertisers – but argued the service will be better for users.

“No company wants users to regret using the product,” Eyal said. “The market is taking care of the problem as we speak.”

That’s not to say the work is over. Far from it. In particular, more attention needs to be paid to products used by kids, as the Apple shareholders highlighted last week. Tech companies need to offer parents greater control over how their children use such products so they can teach good tech habits early.

Additionally, tech sites, gadgets, and services are constantly changing. As they do, we’ll likely run into new problems.

But the focus on addiction is overblown and misguided. What we really need from the industry is for it to think through the potential downsides of its products and make them work better for all of us.