“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”
Larry Page the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, famously told the New York Times that when he looks to purchase a company, he asks whether it passes the toothbrush test; Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better?
At first glance the statement seems perfectly innocuous and almost noble when you think about technology making your life better, but the reality is far more pernicious. Unlike brushing your teeth, something we are taught to do from early child hood, in order to preserve our gums and have healthy teeth, for internet companies the equivalent is finding ways to ensure we get fixated with and completely addicted to their products.
This type of addiction to Facebook, Google, Amazon, LinkedIn or Netflix has nothing to do with making us healthier or better human beings; in fact it is having exactly the opposite effect on our brains, mental well-being and state of happiness.
Merriam-Webster describes addiction as;
1: the quality or state of being addicted
2: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful
There is a reason Silicon Valley does not use traditional business metrics like earnings, sales or revenue to measure an acquisition target, instead they look at ‘stickiness’ or addiction in terms of how often users interact with the app on a daily basis.
Until now we thought about harmful addictions primarily in terms of substance abuse because it is easier to see the visible and physical effects on someone addicted to drugs, alcohol or sex; with the internet and social media, the addiction is more disarming and harder to see. We can all agree that most addictions are bad for human beings, and scientists and researchers are just now starting to see the detrimental effect smart phones are having on our intelligence, social skills and declining levels of happiness.
I understand that this is a hard thing to get your head around because few people will be able to imagine navigating daily life without a smartphone. It is how we stay in touch with friends, share kid’s milestones with family, communicate with co-workers, stay on top of breaking news, search for answers and even solve complex work problems, as well as what we turn to for entertainment during commutes and down-time. Nobody is suggesting we power down our phones and move back into caves, but it is important to understand the harm of constant use and without conscious boundaries.
A recent Wall Street Journal article cites a number of independent research studies reaching the same dangerous conclusion that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”
To keep us addicted, each service needs to constantly invent new ways to get us to spend time within their apps and to do it many times a day. This is how Facebook, BuzzFeed, Instagram, Reditt and every other similar service make money - the more often we use it, the more likely we are to see an ad, and thus the more valuable their service becomes to an advertiser.
There are only so many baby pictures and cat videos one can watch. After a while the bit of content vying for our attention needs to become more and more outrageous and sensational to command our repeated attention. It is this vicious cycle in a race to become the most addictive that is driving all their content into the gutter, as we saw with the mass proliferation of fake news across all news and social media platforms in the last US election.
People will argue that we have dealt with many captive and unhealthy mediums over the centuries and mankind has not only survived, but thrived, and this is true; but unlike cinema, radio, television or computers, we have never before been able to immerse ourselves in these things twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and have them within our reach from the moment we wake up to when we sleep.
The same WSJ article explains this fundamental difference with a mobile phone in this way: “Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.”
Another study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found a direct connection between increased Facebook usage and decreased well-being; “And the team says their findings show that "well-being declines are also a matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use." Even if we were to argue that adults are generally more capable of dealing with this type of addiction, which the data says is not true, we must consider the devastating effect it is having on younger minds.
Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has been studying generational differences for 25 years, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic on this issue. She found that “there is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” She concludes that “there’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.”
I am not suggesting that Facebook, LinkedIn or Google are evil; in fact in the grand scheme of life they have done much more good than bad. The issue is the frequency with which we engage with our apps based on having our mobile phones tethered to us 24x7, and the incessant and constant need to consume information via the built in alerts and notifications, which are designed to distract us from life and encroach on our minds in unhealthy ways.
I understand that it is not possible to live without Facebook and Google or a mobile phone today, but there is no reason why we need to have access to and distraction by these services twenty-four hours a day. My suggestion (and this is what I have done) is to delete Facebook from your phone, because it is the MOST distracting and harmful social platform of the lot and then turn OFF your notifications on all the other apps barring maybe two or three news sites.
This way you will still have access to everything but will be in total command of when and where you do, and no longer be a slave to their alerts and notifications.
I promise you that you will be much happier and science says your mind will be much healthier.