The addictive quality of screens and why we’re hooked

As screens are becoming more difficult to resist during the pandemic, the role that they now play in our lives can feel all-consuming. Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels.

Americans, on average, spend anywhere between 15 to 20 years of their life in front of a screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this statistic as many individuals now find themselves forced to spend the majority of their day online for work or social purposes. This increase in device usage begs the question: Why are they so addicting, and what effects will this abundant amount of screen time have on an individual’s future? 

Adam Alter is a New York Times bestselling author of two books and an associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Alter was invited by the University of Connecticut’s Leadership Legacy Experiences program to give a lecture entitled “Why We’re Hooked: The Truth Behind Addictive Technology.” This lecture coincided with his second book “Irresistible,” which examines why 50% of the population is addicted to at least one tech-driven behavior.  

“Behavioral addiction is an experience that you find so compelling that you do it over and over and over again,” Alter said. “It is rewarding in the short term.” 

Behavior addiction centers around the idea that people are driven to engage in immediately rewarding behavior and can easily overlook the possible negative long-term side effects associated with their actions.  

As screens are becoming more difficult to resist, the role that they now play in our lives can feel all-consuming. Social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, and search engines like Google, rely on visitors spending as much time on their platforms as possible so that they can have more time allotted to advertising.  

A main driver of this so-called “irresistible screen experience” is stopping cues. In a Ted Talk that Alter gave in 2017, he discussed this phenomenon and shared how stopping cues are basically signals that show it is time to move on and do something different. Major technology companies have capitalized on removing stopping cues to increase continued engagement.  

Netflix is one of the leading companies who has taken advantage of eliminating stopping cues. Post-Play is a feature on the site that was launched in 2012 which automatically plays the next episode without any user interaction needed. 

“It’s a small change to the platform, but a dramatic change to have people interact with Netflix,” Alter said. 

This feature has led to binge-watching and having a harder time pulling yourself away from the screen once you have begun watching a series.  

Devices affect almost every aspect of a person’s existence. From the time you wake up, to the time you go to bed, it is likely that you are within arm’s length of your phone or some type of electronic device.  

The grim reality regarding the amount of time we spend in front of screens has shown that major changes need to be made in regard to how individuals interact with devices and what they choose to do in their free time.   

“The best thing you can do … is to spend some time far away from your phone,”

“The best thing you can do … is to spend some time far away from your phone,” Alter said.  

Although this might sound like simple advice, creating a barrier between you and your phone will allow you to make sure it does not overtake your life. Although phones and other devices have become a deep part of who we are, Alter emphasizes the need to carve out space and time away from your phone to spend time in natural environments. 

Though many of us now spend a majority of the day looking at a screen, it is important to keep in mind that having experiences in which you are not tethered to screens is enriching and necessary for your overall health and wellbeing.   

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