Episode 33: Tech Addiction

How to Find Our Way to a Happier Existence With (and Without) Our Favorite Devices

Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

The Background

Look, I get it.

Both iOS 14 and Xbox Series X were just announced and you need to have them. You want to show folks or brag to your friends (on Zoom, of course), be the “early adopter” you were born to be and experiment with this stuff before everyone else. You need to.

“Need”.

It’s a funny word, isn’t it? It’s not only funny-sounding — say it 3x out loud and you’ll chuckle, I promise — but it’s also funny because of what it’s come to mean culturally. That’s because, in today’s world, the concept of “need” with regard to technology is a total and complete lie. Not only don’t we need technology as it’s marketed to us, but we’ve also largely forgotten what a need truly is.

We need to eat. We need to sleep. We need to pay taxes. We need to spend time with our children, partners, and friends. We need to connect with nature. And we need to go to the bathroom after our third cup of coffee. These are real needs, especially that last one.

But we do NOT need the new Thing. Or the new Xbox. We don’t need a better large screen TV. We don’t need to figure out to get 200 or 2000 likes on our next posts. We certainly don’t need to read the news 27.5 times a day to see what’s happened. And we probably don’t need to subscribe to 475 email newsletters. (In this case, I’m sure glad you did, though. 👍🏼 ❤️ 🤟🏻) These aren’t needs; they’re preferences or wants.

The question is: How did we get here?

The Science & Statistics

Much of technology is designed - both hardware and software — by people who have studied human behavior and neuroscience as it applies to technology. Many of the top professionals in this field come from Stanford University’s aptly-named Persuasive Technology Lab. Their goal? To get you hooked on products and then keep you hooked. If you’re like me, and you’re thinking “Well, that sure sounds a lot like a drug addiction,” then you’re 100% right.

Addiction — which the tech industry politely refers to as “engagement” — is exactly the goal. That’s not even a secret, by the way. You can read about it here. And here. And here. And here. Or, if you really want to blow your mind open, you can watch a fascinating, engaging, and alarming documentary on Netflix that features interviews from some of the very people who helped create this addiction. Here’s a trailer:

I’d also point you to the Congressional testimony of Tristan Harris — one of the prominent figures in that Netflix documentary — from January 2020 about the use of “persuasive technology” and how it’s ripped apart the fabric of our culture, starting with our children:

Seen in this context, it’s suddenly clear why Apple included the Screen Time app on all of it’s iOS devices, starting with the release iOS 12: it was a public admission by the technology company that its hardware — which is extremely elegant and desirable — is a gateway device which leads to technology addiction. Apple’s not alone of course. Samsung, Google, Huawei and all smartphones are designed so that people will use it in addictive ways. Especially young people.

There are, however, two main differences between addition to drugs or alcohol and addiction to technology:

The first and most obvious: alcohol and drugs are regulated by the government with laws determining who has access to these substances and when that access is allowed. For example, you can’t legally purchase alcohol in most countries if you’re under the age of 18 and you can’t legally consume that alcohol while operating a vehicle. By comparison, technology is not regulated by the government: not the devices we carry in our pockets, nor the social media platforms on which we spend so much time. This mean that anyone - including minors - can have ownership of and access to technology, including all the unregulated and poorly fact-checked information that exists online.

The second and equally-unnerving difference regarding tech addiction is one of availability and scope. Bars close at 2am, but the Internet is always open for business. That always-available model, coupled with easy-to-use tech has caused humanity to go online at an accelerated rate:

Compare these statistics to those available for, say, the misuse of alcohol or the misuse of drugs and you’ll start to understand just how problematic tech addiction is for adults.

And for children.

How to Know if You or Someone You Know is Impacted

From time to time, I think we all need to reassess our relationship to our technology. For me, that process starts with asking a few simple questions to help self-assess how balanced I am. These are my own, personal questions, not those authored by a doctor, scientist, or institution, although those are worth checking out as well.

My questions:
  1. How much time goes by in the morning after you first wake up before you grab your smartphone?

  2. Do you ever shut your phone off while you’re driving the car?

  3. Are you able to go a day or even a week without looking at social media?

  4. Do you ever walk or exercise without your smartphone?

  5. On average, what’s the longest amount of time you take, without checking your phone for texts, emails, the news, or the stock market?

  6. When’s the last time you sat through a meal without looking at your phone?

  7. For those with children: how often do you play with your kids without needing to use your phone for any reason, including using it as part of the play itself?

  8. How much time usually goes by before you put down your phone and go to bed?

  9. Do you keep your phone on the nightstand right next to you while you sleep?

  10. Do you spend more time playing on your phone (games, texts, social media) than you do with your friends, partner, children, or pets?

After honestly answering these questions, I’ll ask: are you honestly still in charge of your technology or has your technology — somehow and without you even realizing it — taken charge of you? If you’re like me, then the answers to the above questions will surprise and perhaps even scare you.

Good.

We can’t get better if we don’t first recognize the problem.

A Fast… To Go Slow

Every Fall, right around this time, Jews around the world celebrate the holy day of Yom Kippur, literally “Day of Atonement”. It’s a day considered so holy, that one abstains from both food and water for 24 hours as part of a spiritual and physical purification ritual.

I’ll recommend something similar for us tech addicts, only - in this case - it’ll be a technology fast.

We’ll undertake this by restricting or even eliminating some of what we’ve come to accept as normal or routine with our technology. More importantly, we’ll do this with 100% willingness because - having answered the questions in the previous section - we’ve now come to understand that we need to reset our relationship to our technology.

The good news: when it’s all done, our fast will allow us to re-approach our technology with very different eyes. We’ll return to our tech with an increased ability to more consciously plan using it with balance in mind. We will know, far more easily, what is and is not essential on a day-to-day basis.

Now, look: I understand this can be daunting. Scary, even. We’ve become so used to having our phones in our pockets that we’ve forgotten what it was like when we were kids and had no cellphones. So go back in time with me, please. And let’s remember when we all just relied on payphones and making a good plan with friends and family in advance. Back then, we had to trust that… everyone would just show up when they should.

Remember those days? Remember how most things just worked out fine?

They still do. Here’s how…

How to Design Your Technology Fast

Not every suggestion I’m about to offer will work for all of you. That’s fine. Take what works for you and use it. Feel free to alter other suggestions to suit your needs. Buy, by all means, please DO take the spirit of the challenge seriously and give yourself the powerful break from technology that you deserve and need.

  1. Turn off all notifications on your smartphone. All of them. You no longer need to be disturbed every time everyone in your Rolodex texts, calls, or emails you.

  2. On your work computer, set a reminder in your calendar to check your texts/calls/emails from 1-2pm each day. Why 1-2pm? Simple: because your morning is best left to focused work, and because all that focused work most certainly deserves a well-earned lunch break.

  3. Remove the Facebook and Twitter apps from your smartphone. They’re not needed to access those websites on your smartphone anyway: any web browser will still work. Worth noting that removing the social media apps from your handheld devices still affords you the opportunity to access those sites via your desktop/laptop computers.

  4. Remove all news apps from your phone. News is available on tv, radio, newspapers, and the internet, so don’t worry: you can’t avoid it totally even if you wanted to. #RBG Therefore, you don’t need it on your phone, young Grasshopper…

  5. At night, charge your phone in any room OTHER than your bedroom. You don’t need the temptation waiting right there, kiddo, trust me. Worried about waking up at the right time? I got you covered, Kojak: grab an old-fashioned alarm clock.

  6. When you run errands, don’t take your phone with you. You don’t need a pocket computer with you if you’re just grabbing groceries, picking up the kids, or getting gas. If there’s an emergency, you’ll be home soon enough and can get the info then.

  7. On roadtrips, power down your phone. No, not airplane mode: fully powered off, please. Most of your driving is to locations you already know. If not, most cars today have GPS navigation, so you won’t need your phone for that. Additionally, when you’re operating a two ton vehicle at 60 miles per hour, you don’t need distractions like the kind that your phone provides. Ditto for your kids: when you’re driving, collect their tech and place it in the glove compartment. Then… let them stare out of the window and catch glimpses of the clouds, trees, fields, lakes, and scenery. Play music or word games. Generations of kids have done this and can attest to its safety.

  8. No phones or comptuers at mealtime. No, not even to share pictures, play music, or video chat with family and friends. Take 45-60 whole minutes to sit down with your loved ones - or by yourself - and just enjoy some time without your computers. Put them another room if you can. Then, while you’re in the other room, put on the stereo or some other source of music. Light up some candles (or whatever else you like to light up.) Just enjoy being a human around other humans and food. Leave the tech for after the table’s been cleared off.

  9. When you’re with your kids, put the phone down. Take my parents’ example: when they sat down with me to help with homework or to ask me about my day, they weren’t also juggling emails or texting with an old friend. Instead, they were simply present with me. Give your kids that same gift: the gift of your time, focus, and attention. Teach them, by your actions, that they, not your technology are the priority.

  10. No technology within 90 minutes of bed time. Maybe you like playing Yahtzee with friends on your smartphone. Or streaming an episode of your favorite Netflix show. Or getting in a few more minutes of work after the kids have gone to bed. Great. I support all of it… until about 90 minutes before you plan on going to bed. Then, turn everything off. Your brain and eyes need recovery time from the stimulation

  11. Limit social media to an absolute minimum. I’m not suggesting that social media is bad. I’m suggesting that it might be bad depending on how you use it. If you’re constantly going online to check who’s replied to or liked your posts, then yes: social media might be bad. However, if you go on once a week to post fabulous pics of your family enjoying activities together, then no: social media is not bad. Find your healthly middle ground.

  12. Change the homescreen of your smartphone to only include apps that help you get productive or experience joy. Here’s my own home screen which emphasizes certain kinds of information and productivity:

I’ve tried these things myself and know that they’ll make a huge difference in the quality of your life. Even better, that difference will be seen and felt by those around you, including your family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. 👍🏼👌😀

Bonus Challenges

Once you’ve mastered the list of changes above, I’ve got a two, slightly-more-advanced challenges for you. Here they are:

  1. Stay off of social media for 30 days. If you’re worried what people will think, just post about your experiment before you sign off. Then, enjoy the 2+ hours per day that you’ll now have to do other, healthier things: call people and have some deeper conversations; journal for 15-30 minutes in the morning; go for a walk and listen to a book being read, a great podcast, or your favorite album. I’ve done this fast many times before - sometimes for 60 or more days - and it’s now permanently changed my relationship to social media.

  2. Leave your smartphone at home for one business week. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that you have a computer. If you do, then you really don’t need a phone, do you? Sorry, but if your computer allows you to contact other people by email, voice, and text, then what purpose does your phone serve? Answer: distraction. There are, I’ll grant, a few, rare times when having a phone is a tremendous convenience or lifesaver. Statistically, those times are a very small percentage. Take your time back. Reclaim what you

The Lessons Learned

If it’s not clear yet, then I’ll make it clear now: no, you should not update to iOS 14. And no, you should not get the new Xbox. Those aren’t real needs: they’re ego-driven wants. Therefore, let them wait.

Things that cannot wait include your family, your soul, and your mental health. These are real needs. And, as such, they need your attention.

Disconnecting from our technology - in smart and strategic ways - helps us to get back in touch with our needs and to live better lives.

My colleagues in tech refer to “connected living”, but they have it backwards: they’re talking about always-on access to the Internet. My notion of connected living is quite different: connecting to others and to our selves.

Let’s hope we can all strive for more of those kinds of connections in the coming year.


And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading and for being a subscriber, either paid or free.

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As always… surf safe.


Click here for my guide on how to choose a privacy-focused VPN.
If you’re looking to set up a VERY secure iPhone, click here.
To learn how to remove your personal data from the web, click here.
For a super cool way to NOT give your personal email address to everyone, click here.
Click here for a crash course on how to keep your devices updated.

Lastly, please know that some links in this story pay me a small commission if you decide to purchase a product that I’ve recommended. While it’s not a lot of money, I need to be transparent. Every product and service I recommend are those I’ve personally purchased, tested, or use myself. Other recommendations may include products that I’ve deeply researched before making a recommendation.