Could smartphones and other screens be decreasing the human attention span? Author Adam Alter thinks so.
"Ten years ago, before the iPad and iPhone were mainstream, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds," Alter tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. Now, he says, "research suggests that there's been a drop from 12 to eight seconds ... shorter than the attention of the average goldfish, which is nine seconds."
Alter links our diminished attention spans to the "mainstream adoption of screens." His new book, Irresistible, explores the consequences of living in an increasingly computerized world.
Alter says that technology is designed to be addictive and that the gratification it provides is similar to that of other addictive behaviors, such as drug abuse or gambling.
"If I'm addicted to, say, World of Warcraft, the minute I start firing up the game ... my brain will look [in a scan] very much like the brain of someone who's addicted to heroin and is preparing the next hit," he says. "During the act of playing the game ... my brain will look very much like that person's brain will look as they're taking heroin, or the brain of someone who is addicted to gambling, as they sit in front of a slot machine and play the game."
On how World of Warcraft game designers make it to be more addictive
One hundred million, roughly, have played the game, and by many measures, about half of them have developed an addiction, at least temporarily. So that to me suggests that it's a weaponized game; it's an experience that's very, very hard to resist.
Part of the reason for that is, I think, that these large game companies have access to an incredible trove of data. So one thing that a lot of the designers do is they'll release different versions of missions ... to different people, sort of A/B test these different missions. They'll look at how long you play, whether you return to the game, and generally how engaged you are. They generally call this "time on device," which is a term that's borrowed from the gambling world — how long are you on the slot machine.
What they'll find is, for example, when you have to save [rescue] something, you spend more time playing than say, when you have to kill or find something. So what they'll do is they'll take the missions that aren't as successful and they'll cast them aside, and now they'll form three new versions of saving missions. ... They'll continue that process through generation after generation after generation. So what you're left with after, say, 20 generations is this weaponized evolved version of the game, or a weaponized evolved mission, that is maximally addictive.
On an extreme case of World of Warcraft addiction
There was a person I spoke to, he was a straight-A student, he was very high-achieving, and he was also on the football team at his college. He started playing World of Warcraft because he, as he described it, was quite lonely and he found that there were a lot of other like-minded people on the game.
He developed an addiction pretty quickly because he found that it was basically a much better alternative world to the real one, and he spent a lot of time there. ... He played instead of sleeping, and his greatest binge was a 45-day binge where he played almost continuously. He paid a doorman in the building to bring up pizza, so by the end of this binge there were stacks of pizza boxes to the ceiling. He put on about 40 pounds of fat. His skin was pale. He lost hair. He ignored hundreds of phone calls.
He eventually picked up a phone call 45 days later after sleeping roughly an hour each night. It happened to be his mother and she came, collected him, and took him to reSTART, this Internet addiction treatment center. He's now thriving, he's doing very well, but he had to go through multiple rounds of treatment.
On the idea that tech designers should have an oath similar to the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, pledging not to harm their patients
Google, for example, had for a while a person on board known as a "design ethicist." Now, you don't have a design ethicist on board unless you're concerned about the ethics of the products you're creating. This person, named Tristan Harris, worked at Google for a while and eventually there was a sense that perhaps they weren't responsive enough to some of his concerns. ...
The suggestion there that you need an ethicist, it suggests at least to me that they're concerned about the addictiveness of the products. In fact, Tristan himself has written about that, and that's exactly what he says. He suggests that there should be, in the design world, a Hippocratic oath — just as in medicine doctors should "do no harm," he believes the same should be true of designers of these kinds of platforms; that people who design tech, people who design social media platforms, should be forced to obey the same rules — do no harm.
On how virtual reality is the next big thing to become mainstream
Virtual reality is basically when you put on goggles and you inhabit a virtual world that feels like it's real. You can move around in that world, you can interact with other things in that world, you basically are living in that world for all intents and purposes, and your brain often can't distinguish.
There's amazing footage of people doing all sorts of things when they're in the virtual reality world. They will walk into walls, not realizing the walls are there. They will not walk forward if in the virtual world there's a cliff, even though they know, they know they're in a world where they're safe — the real world. ...
If you talk to experts in the industry they'll say something like, say, between two and four years from now just as most of us own smartphones, we will pretty much all own these virtual reality goggles. ... What that will mean is that at any moment in time you'll have a device that will allow you to escape the imperfect real world, and you'll be able to go to a perfect virtual world. ... You can be where you are right now, or you can go to a beach in Greece, which might sound more appealing. You can be where you are right now, or you can interact with a beautiful person. You can be where you are now, or you can go traveling. You can do basically whatever it is you want to do, so it's hard to imagine people will want to inhabit the real world, when there's this perfect virtual world right there ready for the taking.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know the feeling when you're out to dinner, you're enjoying talking to your family or friend, but after maybe 40 minutes - OK maybe even 30 minutes - you get that urge? You have to check your phone. Our guest Adam Alter says far too many of us are spending far too much time staring at our screens on our digital devices, and he says those who create the apps, video games and social media platforms we use are getting better and better at making their products irresistible.
In fact, that's the name of Alter's new book about the rise of behavioral addictions in our increasingly computerized world. For some, these addictions can be debilitating. For others, the effect is more subtle, shortening attention spans and impairing our ability to empathize with each other because so much of our communication is mediated by electronic devices.
Adam Alter is an associate professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business with an affiliated appointment in psychology. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Adam Alter, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you write early on in this book that some major figures in the world of computing and digital devices are wary of their use, at least among their own kids. Who are these people? What are their concerns?
ADAM ALTER: They're some of the biggest names in tech, some of tech's titans. It starts really with Steve Jobs. So in 2010, Jobs introduced the iPad at an Apple event, and he called it the best way to consume all sorts of media. He said it's the best way to watch TV. It's the best way to browse the internet, and he basically suggested that everyone should own an iPad.
But two years later, Nick Bilton, a journalist at The New York Times, interviewed Jobs and said, so your kids must love the iPad. And Jobs said, actually, we don't have one at home. We don't let them use it. So, you know, there's a surprising disconnect there between the way Jobs describes the iPad publicly and the way he allows his children to not consume it privately. He's not the only person, though.
There's a school in the Bay Area known as the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, and what's interesting about the school is that it's a school where you cannot use tech. There are no iPads. There are no iPhones. Those things are common at most schools, but not at the Waldorf School. And 75 percent of the students there have parents who are big names in Silicon Valley.
DAVIES: And do we know from their comments what they're wary of?
ALTER: You know, it's hard to tell, but you have a sense. Google, for example, had for a while a person onboard known as a design ethicist. Now, you don't have a design ethicist onboard unless you're concerned about the ethics of the products you're creating. This person named Tristan Harris worked at Google for a while and, eventually, there was a sense that, perhaps, they weren't responsive enough to some of his concerns. He left, and he's now doing some freelance work.
But I think the suggestion there that you need an ethicist is - it suggests, at least to me, that they're concerned about the addictiveness of the products. And in fact, Tristan himself has written about that, and that's exactly what he says. He suggests that there should be, in the design world, a Hippocratic Oath. Just as in medicine, doctors should do no harm.
He believes the same should be true of designers of these kinds of platforms, that people who design tech, people who design social media platforms should be forced to obey the same rules - do no harm.
DAVIES: All right. Well, let's talk about some of these devices and some of these issues. You know, you write that there's an app called Moment, which measures how much time you spend on your smartphone, and you decided to install it and check yourself. So how much time did you think you were spending on your phone? And then what did you find?
ALTER: I thought the same thing that the designer and his friends thought. I thought I was using my phone roughly an hour a day. The average user uses it for about three hours a day, and I was bang on average. I was using my phone three hours a day, as well, and picking it up roughly 100 times a day, which I found staggering.
DAVIES: Did you try and change things after that? Did you try and check your email less, use the phone less?
ALTER: Yeah. I have, and I think that's one of the messages of the book. It's that we don't even know what we should be aware of or what we should be concerned about until you have some device that measures that for you.
So for me, Moment was an awakening. I had it on my phone for a little while and since I thought I was using my phone for an hour a day, but the number turned out to be three times higher, that pushed me to do something about my use. Now, one of the things I've done is I've decided that between 5 and 8 p.m. - that three-hour period is time for me to spend with my wife and son and time for me, if at all possible, not to use my phone.
DAVIES: Now, anybody who has kids who are young adults or teenagers are aware how much time they spend texting one another, often about some pretty serious and emotional things. What are the effects of communicating that way?
ALTER: Yeah, well, it's the same issue, first of all, that the communication is impoverished, so you don't have the same degree of connection that you would have if you were face-to-face, obviously. I think the real issue is what that does to you in the long-run and how that changes the way you communicate.
Now, for those of us who've been around long enough to remember the pre-tablet and pre-smartphone era, we matured and came of age in an era where we were seeing most people face-to-face, and that was an important thing. There's a sort of critical period in - early in our lives when we develop the faculties that allow us to communicate well, that allow us to speak face-to-face with people.
You know, if you say something that's nasty and you see someone scrunch up their face and start crying, you know if you're a normal person that that's not pleasant for you or for them and you stop doing it. If most of your communication happens on text or remotely or through social networks, you never really get that feedback, and it changes the way you communicate.
And that's something we don't really - we're concerned about it - but we don't really know the extent of that impact because the kids who were born into the, say, iPhone and iPad eras are now 10 years old - so the first iPhone was 2007 - and 7 years old - the first iPad was 2010. So we don't know what these people will look like and how their social lives will evolve as they approach adulthood.
DAVIES: Let's talk about video games. You say that "World Of Warcraft," the video game may be one of the most addictive experiences on the planet. Why?
ALTER: Well, 100 million people roughly have played the game, and by many measures about half of them have developed an addiction, at least temporarily. So that, to me, suggests that it's a weaponized game. It's an experience that's very, very hard to resist.
Now, part of the reason for that is, I think, that these large game companies have access to an incredible trove of data, so one thing that a lot of the designers do is they will release different versions of missions. So what happens in this game is you form guilds with other people, and there are other players all around the world. And you go on missions together.
And, you know, there are different outcomes for different missions. Sometimes, perhaps, you have to kill something. Sometimes you have to save something. Sometimes you might have to find something. So what the designers will do is they will release different versions to different people. They'll sort of A, B test these different missions. They'll look at how long you play, whether you return to the game and, generally, how engaged you are. They generally call this time on device, which is a term that's borrowed from the gambling world. How long are you on the slot machine?
And what they'll find is, for example, when you have to save something, you spend more time playing than, say, when you have to kill or find something. So what they'll do is they'll take the missions that aren't as successful, and they'll cast them aside. And now they'll form three new versions of saving missions. So they'll introduce some tweaks. Do you have to save a person? Do you have to save an animal? Do you have to save an object?
And they'll continue that process through generation after generation after generation, so what you're left with after, say, 20 generations, is this evolved version of the game, or a weaponized evolved mission, that is maximally addictive. And that's why you can be, as a designer, so much more successful in creating a product that people don't want to stop using.
DAVIES: Wow, you really get the candy (laughter). You find it and give it to them.
ALTER: Yeah, absolutely.
DAVIES: Now, this is a game in which you're playing in real time with how - I mean, there are literally - what? - hundreds of thousands, millions of people playing the game at any one point. You're interacting with some number of them. So you could say that it's not such an isolating experience because you are forming relationships of a kind. Is that in any way healthy?
ALTER: You know, it can be. I spoke to a number of people who were addicted to "World Of Warcraft" and were in treatment for that addiction. There's a center near Seattle known as reSTART. And reSTART treats a handful of boys at a time. It's a center out in the woods, and it basically removes them from the context.
Now, a lot of the boys there were, to some extent, lonely when they were younger, perhaps they were bullied - not all of them, but many of them. And what "World Of Warcraft" does for them is it soothes those psychological ills. So if you happen to have been lonely - as many of these boys were - you go onto this platform, and you develop friendships. And it's a very nonjudgmental platform in that it doesn't matter who you are, you create your avatar, and you will probably meet other people who are playing the game. There tends to be an openness to forming these guilds. It's part of what happens. So for those people, this can be very soothing, but of course the danger of that is that it's something they'll want to do all the time. One thing you have is you have people on guilds from all across the world in different time zones. So you stop sleeping. It makes more sense for you to play.
You know, just as people think of themselves in war, you know, you have to go with your band of brothers. You have to keep playing. You can't stop. You can't sleep. Some of these guys describe it as sort of a war game. And they feel that if they let down their fellow players in Japan and Denmark and wherever else they may be around the world, that's just not fair and just not right. And so they stopped sleeping altogether. So what starts out as a way to soothe the loneliness ends up being quite dangerous physiologically and in other ways as well.
DAVIES: And so when someone is deeply addicted, how bad can their lives get? What does it look like?
ALTER: Yeah, well, let me describe an extreme case. It'll give you a sense. So there was one person I spoke to. He was a straight-A student. He was very high-achieving. And he was also on the football team in his college. He started playing "World Of Warcraft" because he, as he described it, was quite lonely. And he found that there were a lot of other like-minded people on the game. He developed an addiction pretty quickly because he found that it was basically a much better alternative world to the real one. And so he spent a lot of time there.
As I said, he played instead of sleeping. And his greatest binge was a 45-day binge where he played almost continuously. He paid a doorman in the building to bring up pizza. So by the end of this binge, there were stacks of pizza boxes to the ceiling. He put on about 40 pounds of fat. His skin was pale. He lost hair. He ignored hundreds of phone calls. He eventually picked up a phone call 45 days later, after sleeping roughly an hour each night. It happened to be his mother. And she came, collected him and took him to reSTART, this internet addiction treatment center. And he's now thriving. He's doing very well. But he had to go through multiple rounds of treatment.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Adam Alter. His new book about addiction to smartphone and internet use and other behaviors is called "Irresistible." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with Adam Alter. His new book about addiction to smartphones and internet use and other behaviors is called "Irresistible." Is there evidence that this attachment to all these devices is affecting our attention span?
ALTER: Yeah, there is actually. There's some evidence to suggest that about 10 years ago, before the iPad and the iPhone were mainstream, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds, which doesn't sound overwhelming. It's not great. But, you know, if you think about the way we navigate the world, there are, some measures suggest, a thousand different messages that we're processing every day. And so they're fighting for our attention. You don't need much of an attention span to be - to exist in a world like that.
But 10 years later, research suggests that that drop - there's been a drop from 12 to eight seconds. Now, there could be a number of different things driving that drop. But I think one of the biggest cultural changes is the mainstream adoption of screens. And what's interesting about that number, eight seconds, is that it's shorter than the attention span of the average goldfish, which is nine seconds.
DAVIES: (Laughter). That's a cheery thought.
ALTER: It's cheery, isn't it?
DAVIES: But without getting too technical, what do we mean when we say an attention span of eight seconds or 12 seconds? What does that mean?
ALTER: It means that - yeah - it basically means that if you give someone something, you put something in front of them and you allow them to act on that thing as they like - you're basically not drawing their attention in any way - they will be bored after about 12 seconds or eight seconds.
So imagine the goldfish in the bowl. You hold up a piece of paper with a picture on it, perhaps another goldfish. The average goldfish will stare at that thing for about nine seconds. Do the same thing to a human. Eight seconds later, they're on to the next thing.
DAVIES: OK. I mean, I guess one of the things that all smartphones bring us is new content whenever we want it. There's just no reason to ever be bored or rely on our imaginations.
ALTER: Exactly. Yeah, I think that's one of the biggest issues. That - you ask people who grew up in the '80s or earlier, and they'll say to you, when I was a kid, I remember I had to memorize, say, a hundred different phone numbers. And I had to decide what to do next. Kids today don't have to remember phone numbers. In fact, no one really does. It's a faculty that's kind of become extinct. It doesn't really exist today.
And I think what the iPhone has done is it's - it allows you to exist in the world without really needing to be inventive, without needing to come up with your own fun if you're a kid. It brings everything to you. It is competing for your attention rather than forcing you to do what's - whatever's best for you next or whatever you want to do next. And so there's no downtime. There's no time to be thoughtful, to be quiet, to have to be a little bit creative and inventive. And I think what that does over time is it means that those faculties wither a little bit. They're like muscles that just aren't used. And I think that makes us weaker mental specimens, basically.
DAVIES: You write about the biology of behavioral addiction. Do scientists think that there are significant differences between addiction to a substance, like alcohol or heroin or tobacco, and a behavioral addiction?
ALTER: There are some differences. So the differences are, first of all, that substances will act directly on the body. So the minute you ingest a substance, it has certain physiological consequences for you. Most of them will release dopamine. And dopamine is basically the pleasure chemical that makes us feel good. That's a very oversimplified definition. But that's dopamine's - one of its primary roles. And so if you take a substance, it releases dopamine. Over time, you become less sensitive to that release of dopamine. And so that's where you get tolerance and why you need to use more and more of that substance.
Now, behavioral addiction is different from substance addiction in that you don't ingest anything. What's interesting, though, and where the two overlap considerably is what the brain looks like when you experience one of these behaviors. So the minute - if I'm addicted to, say "World Of Warcraft," the minute I start firing up the game, I start loading it on my computer, my brain will look very much like the brain of someone who's addicted to heroin and is preparing the next hit. During the actual hit, during the act of playing the game and getting a reward in the game, my brain will look very much like that person's brain will look as they're taking heroin or the brain of someone who's addicted to gambling as they sit in front of the slot machine and play the game, which is obviously deeply concerning.
Now, there may be a difference in magnitude. So the magnitude will be greater when you take a substance, usually, than when you experience a behavioral response. But qualitatively, it's basically the same pattern of brain responses. I should say there is also something very important that - we think of addiction as very much grounded in physiology, in what's going on in our bodies and our brains, and I think that's true to some extent. But really, if that were true, everyone who ever goes into a hospital and is treated with pain meds would develop an addiction to opiates because those are very pure, very powerful drugs. But that doesn't happen. Most people leave hospital, and they recover. And they don't develop addictions.
Addiction is a pairing of that physiological response or that brain response with some psychological motive that is scratched or need that is scratched by the substance or the behavior. So if I'm lonely, for example, then the drug will soothe me or the behavior will soothe me. So we need that psychological gap to exist in order for addiction to take hold. And unfortunately, the way the world works today, many of us have at least some form of psychological gap, something that can be filled with these addictions.
DAVIES: And when we talk about behavioral addictions, is there a difference between these addictions to digital devices and other kinds of behavioral addictions like gambling, compulsive gambling or shopping or hoarding?
ALTER: I think they're very similar actually. I think they activate many of the same brain regions. They are designed to address the same needs. I just think the ones that are affecting a huge part of the population, that are becoming more and more dangerous happen to be digital.
You know, the big next thing that I think's going to happen is that we are - we're at the bottom of a very, very steep, very tall mountain. I think we're still at the bottom. And part of what we've done so far is we've interacted with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. But what lies before us is virtual reality tech.
And virtual reality tech hasn't yet gone mainstream. Virtual and augmented reality is still on the fringes to a large extent. But, you know, if a small, rectangular device can extract you from the here and now...
DAVIES: And maybe you should just explain because there are people who probably don't really get what that is. What are these devices?
ALTER: Yeah. So virtual reality is basically when you put on goggles, and you inhabit a virtual world that feels like it's real. You can move around in that world. You can interact with other things in that world. You basically are living in that world for all intents and purposes. And your brain often can't distinguish.
There's amazing footage of people doing all sorts of things when they're in a virtual-reality world. They will walk into walls not realizing that the walls are there. They will not walk forward if, in the virtual world, there's a cliff, even though they know - you know, they know they're in a world where they're safe - the real world. But the virtual world suggests they're not safe. They won't go there.
We know, for example, that when people play Pokemon Go, which was an augmented-reality game, on their screens they were watching a version of the real world that had these little characters in it. And they would forget that they were in the real world. They'd walk into traffic. So it's a very, very immersive, powerful experience to be in these virtual, augmented-reality worlds.
DAVIES: You know, you write about ways in which designers of video games and social media platforms and other things have these hooks to keep us there, to keep us playing - likes, for example, the ability to like Facebook or Instagram posts. You write about a shopping app called Gilt, G-I-L-T. This is very demonically clever. Explain how this works.
ALTER: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, Gilt capitalizes on a lot of these engines of irresistibility. It - every day, Gilt will release certain deals, and those deals only last for a short period of time.
DAVIES: And they're...
DAVIES: ...Available only to members - right? - who've...
ALTER: Only to members. That's right. So you have to be a member of the site. And you go to the site. You look at what the deal is on that particular day, and you have to pounce very quickly. And they're usually released around the middle time of the day, around lunchtime. So people will return to the site over and over again at the promise of getting a deal.
Now, these deals are very, very impressive, its objects that are greatly discounted, that are often attractive to a large portion of the members of the site. And so people will go and return, day after day after day. That part of it is compulsive. They will keep returning.
But what's really damaging is that a lot of people develop addictions and overspend on the Gilt app. They find that it's very, very hard to curb their spending, and many of them find that they're in debt.
DAVIES: And you're constantly checking it because you don't want to miss tomorrow's deal.
ALTER: Exactly, yeah. You're constantly on the hook.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Adam Alter, author of the new book "Irresistible," about the rise of addictive technology. They'll talk more after a break.
Kevin Whitehead will review a new album of compositions inspired by Thelonious Monk. And Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Heretics" about fanaticism and dogma by one of Cuba's most celebrated writers. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Adam Alter, author of the new book, "Irresistible: The Rise Of Addictive Technology And The Business Of Keeping Us Hooked." Alter says the creators of apps, video games and social media platforms are getting better and better at making products that are kind of addictive.
DAVIES: You mentioned streaming videos - like series that are on Netflix or Amazon or other streaming services - are designed to encourage binge watching. How do they do that? And why should we be concerned about it?
ALTER: Well, they use a different engine. They use the cliffhanger engine. We are very, very sensitive to cliffhangers. We hate a loop that's been opened that hasn't been closed narratively. So if I tell you half a story, you will know how frustrating that is. And that's what a lot of these services do.
If you think about the way long-form TV is constructed, episodes go like this. There's an introduction during the beginning of the episode. Then there's the meat of the episode, and then roughly, you know, two to five minutes from the end, there'll be a cliffhanger set up. That cliffhanger is designed to ensure that you watch the next episode, not just that you watch it, but that you watch it soon so that you will remain engaged with that particular series whatever it is.
Now, the way a lot of these platforms work is instead of allowing you to watch, say, once a week, the way TV has traditionally done by drip-feeding you. Netflix, for example, will have all the episodes of some of its series available at once. And so what ends up happening is the episode will end just as the cliffhanger has been set up. Did this person die? Did this person get killed? Was this the person who was behind the mirror or whatever it is? And automatically, there's a program known as post-play which automatically loads up the next episode.
And so you'll be able to find out the answer to that cliffhanger which makes it devilishly difficult to say no between episodes. And so what you end up having is binge watching. Now, 60 percent of adults say they have watched more of a show than they mean to and a large part of that is post-play which pushes the next episode on you before you're able to say, actually, I'm done. I think I'm going to stop watching now.
DAVIES: It says the...
ALTER: What's also interesting...
DAVIES: ...Next episode will start in 30 seconds unless you...
ALTER: It starts automatically. Yeah. What's interesting is Netflix has data. They show that if you watch the first two or three episodes of any season of most shows - they've got data on lots of different shows - there's about a 70 to 75 percent chance that you will finish the whole series.
DAVIES: You know, I read that. And part of my reaction was yeah, but it's fun. I mean, is it really harmful if I, you know, watch six episodes of "House Of Cards" over a couple of days?
ALTER: You know what? The answer is absolutely not. Some of these experiences are fantastic. They're enjoyable. You may agree with your partner or a friend. Hey, let's have a binge this weekend. There's absolutely no problem with that. I think all of these tech experiences have great elements. They're very appealing.
I couldn't communicate with my family. They live the other side of the world. I couldn't communicate with them as well and introduce them to my young son as well as I can without, say, FaceTime or Skype. So, yes, having a weekend of binge watching when it's snowing outside sounds terrific. But what happens is then you might want to get, you know - may want to do work or, perhaps, you want to spend some time with someone else in your life, a significant other or a friend. And you don't do that because you have access to this service.
So the trick is really working out how to use it sustainably, which is often the language people use - is this environmental language. And I think one good litmus test is how much of the day do you spend where you know what year it is, where you look around, you see an iPhone, so you know it must be, you know, at least sometime in the last 10 years?
What's really effective is to inhabit environments where that doesn't happen, where you can't tell what year it is. Go outside, spend time looking at the ocean, go to the woods, sit in a park, be somewhere where you don't know what year it is because most of those natural experiences tend not to have these same hooks. They're very restorative.
DAVIES: And like anything else, there are apps that will help you.
ALTER: Yeah. Paradoxically, there are apps that will help you wean yourself off apps. I mean, I think Moment is a good example because Moment quantifies your usage, so that certainly does help. There are other apps that are designed to blunt usage or stop it altogether. There are apps that will, for example, disallow use of your phone once you get past a certain level of usage.
You can program your phone to effectively lock you out. That's certainly true of email and has been true for some while that you can activate a system that will prevent you from using email if you've been using it for too long. You're locked out. You can only change that - override it by if there's an emergency.
DAVIES: This is the program called WasteNo Time or is that a different one?
ALTER: WasteNo Time is one of the examples.
DAVIES: And you can set up, for example, to say Facebook - you get 20 minutes on Facebook and then you're out.
ALTER: Yes. Exactly. So WasteNo Time basically allows you to set a limit on how long you're going to be using certain programs. So you could say, for example, that I will not be using Facebook. I will not be at www.facebook.com for longer than X minutes a day - maybe 20 minutes, 30 minutes. And when you exceed that, it'll lock you out. It'll prevent you from being able to access that platform for at least a certain period of time.
DAVIES: Lock in the liquor cabinet. Huh? (Laughter).
ALTER: Exactly. Exactly.
DAVIES: The other thing we should talk about are what are the smart guidelines for parents? What should they know?
ALTER: Yeah. The American Pediatric Association has some guidelines. They suggest at the moment that between zero and 2 years of age, kids should not be exposed to any screens - TVs, iPads, iPhones. They suggest after that that it's OK, perhaps, an hour a day initially to allow them to watch TV or have them interact with educational games. One of the things they say about that content that they engage with is that it should be tethered to the real world.
So once you finish, say, watching a show about different colors, you should then, say, sort the laundry together. And you can say, look, here is that color red. Here's a red sock. That's just like the color red we saw on the screen. So you're always tethering the virtual world or the online screen world to the real world. The other thing that's, I think, very important is that the pace of that content shouldn't be too quick. What basically happens with people is they form an equilibrium that's comfortable for them, associated with the quickest thing they're doing.
So for New Yorkers, that's why we tend to be so impatient. Everything happens so fast here. You're always walking so fast on the street. Everything feels like a rush that no matter where else you go from here, it feels a little bit slow. Now, if kids are watching a show like "SpongeBob SquarePants" which is very, very fast-paced, they lose the ability to enjoy things that are slower-paced.
It's much better to start them out with slower activities like watching, say, "Sesame Street" which moves at a much slower pace so that they don't develop this inability to consume media that requires more constant long-term attention.
DAVIES: And then as they get a little older, you have this dilemma which is if all of their friends have smartphones and are texting all day and into the night, can you deprive them of them?
ALTER: Yeah. And I would say, no, I just don't think that works. I think their social networks are so richly entwined with social media that they just don't have a choice. You'll ostracize them if you do that, if you force them not to use tech. So, you know, not even the American Pediatric Association suggests that beyond a certain age.
What you have to do is to use the same rule that you would use for environmental sustainability. Make sure that the use is sustainable. Make sure that it doesn't happen into all hours of the night. Make sure that people have real world interactions, that your kids have real world interactions. Mandate that they spend actual time with other people, their friends, that for at least a portion of the time when they're together, they're not using other apps, they're not using iPads.
You know, one of the things we see in young kids is parallel play. What they'll do is they'll sit next to each other play with toys, and they won't interact at all. And now that happens with teens and adolescents. You'll have two people who are supposed to be having a playdate or who are supposed to be spending time together, and they'll just sit side by side companionably on their phones, so they're not really interacting. The extent to which they do that, obviously, diminishes the connection between them. And so it should be avoided for at least part of the time they're together.
DAVIES: You know, we began by talking about how you discovered when you looked at an app that you used your smartphone a lot more than you thought you did, three times as much. And it made me wonder, as I read the book, do I have a problem or do my kids have a problem? And how do we know? What do you tell them?
ALTER: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, one of the definitions of behavioral addiction, the one that I like is it's an activity that you do compulsively which means that you return to it over and over again. It's something that you enjoy doing in the short term, but it has at least one negative consequence for you in the long term. That means it's affecting your social life. It could be your ability to form connections with other people or it could affect your physical health.
If you're playing games a lot and you're not exercising, that could be damaging. It could affect your ability to do well at work or to be productive if you're at school. It's really a personal decision. You have to work out whether you think that it is having a deleterious effect on your life. When you have that feeling, when you know that's true, you know you have a problem.
I can also tell you some of my students have a problem, and I know this because on the first day of class, I ask them often I'm going to take your phone for a week. Is that OK? And, of course, they all say no, and then I say all right, well, imagine not having your phone for a week. How much would I have to pay you to give up your phone for that week? And I'm going to lock it in this cabinet over here.
And I say what about a hundred dollars? And no one says yes. Two-hundred dollars - they're all silent. Three-hundred dollars - they're all silent. I have to get high enough that some enterprising student will say, I'll tell you what, professor, if you pay me a certain amount, I'll go out and buy another smartphone to use while you have this one in your cabinet. That's how you know you have a problem.
DAVIES: You introduced me to a new term, nomophobia which is...
ALTER: Yes. Nomophobia is basically no mobile phobia, and it's the phobia people have to not having their phones accessible and available. And you just have to ask yourself how would you feel if you lost your phone today? There's a survey that was asked of some young adults. What would you prefer to have today a broken bone or a broken phone?
And what's incredible about this is 46 percent of them say I'd prefer to have a broken bone, but even better than that is when you watch them make the decision, even those who give the right answer, those who say that I'd rather have a broken phone, agonize over this decision. You can watch them, you know, sort of wrestling with it.
And some of them will say things like I would rather have a broken bone because at least when I'm recovering, I have my phone. And that's how important the phone is to them.
DAVIES: Well, Adam Alter, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ALTER: Thank you.
GROSS: Adam Alter is the author of the new book "Irresistible." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies who was also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album of compositions inspired by Thelonious Monk. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.