Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

The government-funded “Monitoring the Future” survey, an annual measure of substance abuse by teenagers, recently reported that drug, alcohol, and cigarette use by teens is at the lowest level in the survey’s 40-year history. Given that the decline continues a ten-year trend and that the iPhone was introduced ten years ago, some have speculated that teens are simply swapping the high of illicit substances for the high of Instagram likes. One doctor, blogging for Harvard Medical School, referred to the findings as “a bit of a silver lining” to teens’ ceaseless phone use.

Readers of Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked will find little consolation in a possible correlation between the rise of smartphones and the dip in drug use. Alter’s unsettling but riveting book argues that today’s tech, from e-mail to video games to Netflix, is as addictive as the most habit-forming narcotic; moreover, as Alter observes, unlike drugs or alcohol, quitting technology, whose grasp extends into our jobs, schools, recreational activities, and social lives, “isn’t an option.”

Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the author of 2013’s Drunk Tank Pink, spends much of the book establishing that we have a problem. He convincingly argues that technology is increasingly engineered to be addictive, making all of us, but especially children, vulnerable to its dangers; it’s not for nothing that Steve Jobs didn’t let his own kids near an iPad.

The author doesn’t use the word “addiction” lightly: one of his goals is to legitimize the notion that behaviors are as addictive as substances. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders almost included Internet addiction in its latest edition; for now, gambling disorder is the only behavioral addiction listed in the DSM.) Brain scans show that the pattern of neurons firing across the brains of “a drug addict as he injects heroin” and “a gaming addict as he fires up a new World of Warcraft quest” are “almost identical,” Alter writes. Indeed, he spends time with a WoW addict who, after a stint at an Internet addiction rehab clinic near Seattle, relapsed spectacularly with a five-week binge spent playing the game 20 hours a day. World of Warcraft’s effect on the young man’s life was easily as ruinous as a hard drug habit would have been.

Irresistible draws on the work of scientists and social scientists, and Alter excels at applying their research to examples that resonate with everyday tech users. For instance, he describes a 1970s-era study of lab pigeons that pecked buttons in order to receive food pellets. Sometimes the pigeons received food with every peck, while other times they would peck in vain until finally food would be delivered. The psychologist who devised the study found that the pigeons’ dopamine levels spiked when the buttons delivered food on an unpredictable basis.

Alter applies this finding to a very different type of button. “It’s hard to exaggerate how much the ‘like’ button changed the psychology of Facebook use,” he writes of the company’s 2009 activation of the feature. “Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed.” Many Facebook users compulsively track their “likes” and post in an effort to attract ever more positive reinforcement. “Like pigeons,” Alter observes, “we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed.” Little wonder that Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube all introduced “like” buttons, too.

Unfortunately, after Alter sells us so convincingly on the idea that our immersive relationship to tech is hindering our human relationships and our overall quality of life, the solutions he offers hardly feel up to the task. He encourages employers to disable access to work e-mail between midnight and 5 a.m. He describes intriguing apps like the Demetricator, which prohibits Facebook users from seeing—and thus obsessing over—how many people have liked or shared their posts (“10 people like this” becomes “people like this”). He praises “a growing movement of ethical game design,” spearheaded by designers spooked by gamers whose lives have been destroyed by their creations; an ethical game might, for instance, have a natural stopping point to encourage players to disengage.

Given that these strategies are not in tech companies’ or employers’ economic interests, it’s hard to envision them gaining much traction, particularly as the tech landscape evolves in ways impossible to imagine now. (Alter is especially dire predicting virtual reality’s eventual “capacity to render face-to-face interactions obsolete.”) His conclusion, that screen-free downtime will teach us that “the glow of…social bonds will leave us richer and happier than the glow of screens ever could,” feels platitudinous after reading about all of the very specific hooks designed to ensnare us. Moreover, Alter’s book arrives at a time when our devices are irresistible for another reason: many of us are so anxious about the current political situation that we’re compelled to keep checking on the latest developments in a dizzying news cycle. I already know that my relationships with my loved ones are more rewarding than my relationship with my smartphone or laptop. That knowledge doesn’t always prevent me from scrolling through my Facebook feed for just five more minutes even when there are real people in the room waiting to spend time with me. After reading Irresistible, though, I better understand why.