(Device Use Disorder in the smartphone age.)
Before handheld phones got smart, they were called “cell” phones. What a wonderfully ironic name for a device that, as Apple boosts its IQ, locks so many of us into isolation. Which leads me to today’s topic: Are these ubiquitous machines, and the social media they inject into our heads, addictive?
Some self-styled Masters of the Tech Universe seem to think so; a number of them have tried to limit their own kids’ screen time to protect their vulnerable noggins from the apps other Techies cook up in their coding cauldrons.
Yet, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, many Tech Masters aggressively deny that their products can be dangerous or addictive. To unpack this conundrum, let’s look at some studies, read what the Masters themselves say about their products’ potential for teen harm and addiction, and then take an at-home addiction test.
THE KIDS AREN’T ALRIGHT
Independent research findings and “Facebook Depression”
High levels of teen phone and internet use can lead to what the American Academy of Pediatrics considers an actual mental health disorder, which they aptly call “Facebook Depression.” The AAP has concluded that this condition is caused by disheartening pop-ups on teens’ screens such as “friend tallies, status updates, and pictures of friends enjoying themselves, all of which can make children with negative self-images feel worse about themselves.”
And there are a lot of kids at risk. A 2018 Pew survey of 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 95% have a smartphone or access to one, and that “45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.”
Depression is just one of the dangers of this massive e-consumption. A May 28, 2021 comprehensive survey of 84 studies found that excessive teen smartphone use is associated with a myriad of other serious mental and physical health problems. Shouldn’t these products have warning labels?
Just for kicks, I briefly put on my attorney hat (it would be a wig in the UK), and drafted a warning for device packages and app applications. It was a cinch: I just summarized the conclusions of the May 28 survey:
EXCESSIVE USE OF THIS PRODUCT BY TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS HAS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH ADDICTION TO SOCIAL NETWORKING, IMPAIRED COGNITION, AND EMOTIONAL REGULATION, IMPULSIVITY, LOW SELF-ESTEEM, SLEEP PROBLEMS, UNHEALTHY EATING, MIGRAINES, AND CHANGES IN THE VOLUME OF THE BRAIN’S GRAY MATTER.
What did Facebook’s own research team find?
A trove of leaked studies by Facebook’s own internal research team actually supports some of the primary findings of the independent research cited above.
After what they called a three-year “teen mental health deep dive,” Facebook’s inhouse researcers came up with (but understandably never disclosed) these chilling findings:
- 32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, using Instagram (Facebook owns it) made them feel worse.
- “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” a reaction Facebook’s researchers described as “unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
- In a studied group of teen Instagram users who experienced suicidal thoughts, 13% of the British kids and 6% of American teen users connected their desire to kill themselves to Instagram.
The Facebook Empire strikes back.
As the furor triggered by the “Facebook Files” grew, Pratiti Raychoudhury (Head of Research at Facebook) came out guns a-blazing, stridently claiming last September that, “It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is toxic for teen girls.”
What a spectacularly callous thing to say. Even if we use her own colleagues’ percentages, one-third of the millions of teen girls with negative body images who use Instagram say that the platform makes them feel worse about themselves.
THE ISSUE OF ADDICTION
But aren’t we free agents, not creatures ruled by habit? Isn’t the solution simply to limit intake or stop using? The answer depends on whether these products are addictive. Instagram claims they aren’t. No surprise there. In sworn testimony before a Senate subcommittee last fall, Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, flatly stated, “Respectfully, I don’t believe that research suggests that our products are addictive.”
Respectfully, Mr. Mosseri, your “opinion” is as biased as Ms. Raychoudhury’s pronouncement is mean-spirited. In fact, the vast majority of research and scientific literature says you’re wrong, that our growing dependence on phones and apps can in many cases rise to the level of a clinical addiction.
TAKE THE DUD SELF-TEST.
Not sure whom to believe, and curious about what’s shakin’ in your mesolimbic dopamine pathway? Here’s a free off-my-shelf home test of possible addiction. For the sake of brevity, I use the word “Device” to mean both smartphones and social media.
Ready? Over the last 12 months, have you:
- Sometimes ended up using your Device more often or longer than you had planned?
- Sometimes wanted to cut back on or just stop using the Device altogether, but couldn’t?
- Wanted to use the Device so much that it was hard to think of anything else?
- Found that using the Device often interfered with taking care of obligations or issues at home, work, or at school?
- Kept using the Device even though it was causing trouble between you and your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on important, interesting, or pleasurable things so you could use the Device?
- Found yourself using the Device in dangerous situations like driving, strolling in hazardous areas (like walking backward off a cliff while taking a selfie), or (as Jeff Toobin can attest) while using a work Device at the same time?
- Continued to use the Device even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious, or making another of your health problems worse?
- Had to use the Device more over time to enjoy the same pleasure you used to get from it?
- Experienced withdrawal symptoms, including trouble sleeping or restlessness, when you stopped using the Device for a significant amount of time?
These are not random questions I just thunk up on my own. They are, in fact, close paraphrases of the criteria that clinicians use to diagnose an “Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)”. I just applied them to device use by replacing the words “alcohol” or “drinking” with the word “device.” Thus, “Device Use Disorder (DUD).”
Before climbing back onto my holier-than-thou pulpit, I guess I better come clean: I took my own test just now and am embarrassed (but hardly surprised) that I tested positive for a moderate DUD. (One can still test positive without answering “yes” to all of the questions.) After all, I love Netflix and appreciate the convenience of Mapquest as much as the next person. I should have vaccinated with a few good books, gotten boosted with some documentaries like My Octopus Teacher, and social distanced from social media. As Steve Martin used to say, I blame myself.
Because it ain’t just the Tech Masters who are to blame for this mess. If we voracious consumers didn’t buy or use their products, they probably wouldn’t create them. We are also guilty in varying degrees of placing these devices in our children’s hands, thereby giving them unfettered access to media’s often toxic content, and exposing them to the devices’ addictive nature.
Exploring solutions to the dangers of excessive smartphone use and social media apps is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post. My only goal has been to use the clinical criteria for diagnosing substance use disorders to underscore that these toxic risks and strong potential for addiction exist, and are just getting worse, especially for kids.
Yet, as my dad, an English professor, liked to say (quoting Alexander Pope), “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” My hope is that Big Tech’s time in the spotlight will get more intense, leading to sensible regulations (is that a thing?), beefed-up age and content limitations, strict school and work use boundaries, parent and teen education, therapy, and rehab in more extreme cases.
It’s on us too. Let’s step up and give our kids and ourselves the tough love needed to attain escape velocity out of this increasingly lonely, dehumanizing world, to a brighter place of engagement and simplicity, where we can live with lighter hearts and more focused minds. One off switch at a time.
Song: Analog Man, Joe Walsh
Book: Stand out of our Light, James Williams
Movie: Captain Fantastic (Viggo Mortensen at his best.)
Social media app: Had you there for a sec, didn’t I?
Coming soon to a blog near you: Ground the Helicopters (The perils of over-parenting)