You probably don’t need Adam Alter to tell you that your kids are addicted to tech, or that the average American’s attention span is now officially shorter than a goldfish’s, or that Facebook is carefully designed to keep you scrolling endlessly.
Those truths, by now, are what we call self-evident.
But Alter’s new book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked” (Penguin), feels like required reading nonetheless.
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t come across as anti-tech, even as he makes the case for curbing our tech addiction. Alter likes his screens and argues that they improve our lives immeasurably. His title, after all, is “Irresistible” – a word we use to describe chocolate ice cream and baby cheeks.
“We have these tools at our disposal that make life so much easier,” Alter said. “The trick is finding a way to use them sustainably. Particularly for our children.”
His book explores the roots of our tech addiction – from the pleasure centers in our brains that are activated by Facebook “likes” to the psychological tricks web designers use to keep us hooked – and argues that we have a responsibility (and the power) to minimize the dangerous effects.
I caught up with Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University, to discuss his book prior to a Family Action Network event at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Ill.
“I’m not advocating we treat tech like a drug,” he told me. “We’re not talking about heroin, where your kid goes near it once and there’s trouble.”
But devices – and the websites, apps and games that fill them – are designed to capture and hold our attention for as long as possible, which makes it extremely difficult for kids and adults alike to regulate our use.
“Instagram, like so many other social media platforms, is bottomless,” Alter writes. “Facebook has an endless feed; Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode in a series; Tinder encourages users to keep swiping in search of a better option. … According to Tristan Harris, a design ethicist, the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that ‘there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down the self-regulation you have.'”
Alter spells out research that shows kids who spend a lot of time staring at screens suffer from an inability to empathize and read social cues.
“There’s a critical period of maturation, when kids stop parallel play and start engaging with other kids, where they pick up the social skills they’ll use and hone throughout their lives,” he said. “If you aren’t sitting face-to-face, you never really learn what works and what doesn’t and how to discover subtle differences between emotions.”
When kids are asked to detect people’s emotions – happy, sad, angry, surprised – based on nonverbal cues, those who spend a lot of time on tech struggle to decipher one emotion from another at a much higher rate than kids who spend more time interacting in the real world, Alter said.
“And we don’t know how this will turn out long-term for kids who’ve spent the majority of their lives in a screen world,” he said. “Will their overexposure to screens mean they’re generally not as adept, socially, as previous generations?”
For argument’s sake, I asked Alter what makes the buried-in-tech experience so different from a kid who spends childhood buried in books – also avoiding interactions in the real world.
“If you can show me a kid who spends as much time buried in books as kids do on tech, I would also be worried about that kid,” Alter said. “But beyond that, books don’t have the same hooks as screens, which give us so much feedback so rapidly that we’re not allowed to get bored. You have to be very self-motivated to keep your nose buried in book after book.”
And books move slowly.
“One of the things that happens with our brains is we get used to whatever is the most rapid thing we’re experiencing,” Alter said. “If you put a kid in front of something high-paced, say ‘SpongeBob,’ that kid assumes that’s the natural pace of things.”
Not so with a book, or even slower-paced games and programs, such as “Sesame Street,” Alter said.
With older kids who rely on their phones to survive and thrive socially, Alter said, it’s important to discuss limits without demonizing tech. Better, he argues, to familiarize yourself with the platforms they use most and strike up frequent conversations about them – ideally without seeming bewildered.
“If you care about your kids’ well-being, it’s worth understanding the dynamics that influence their behavior,” he said. “Ask them how Snapchat works, even if they laugh at you.”
At the very least, it gives you one more thing to talk about, which is increasingly important in a screen-filled world.
“Every day, pedestrian, mundane interactions are the glue that sticks us together and makes us feel closer to people,” Alter said. “I think that’s what we’re largely losing when we retreat to our screens – those small, minute interactions that help us feel close to other people and help us understand who they are.”
Losing that would truly be tragic.