Technology overuse is a problem that is prevalent in our society today. In order to understand how to stop technology addiction and reduce the negative effects of technology overuse, it is important to first understand the behavioral principles behind digital addiction.
In this blog article, I expand on my discussion with ‘We’re All Crazy!’ podcast co-host Stephanie Heck, Ph.D. about how technology use can easily turn into overuse and then digital addiction, and how we can stop this addiction.
Operant Conditioning: The Basis of Digital Addiction
B.F. Skinner, who was one of the pioneers of behavioral psychology in the post-World War II era, developed the concept of operant conditioning in his famous 1948 pigeon experiments. Skinner trained his pigeons to peck at a target, and when they completed the task successfully they were rewarded with food. Thus, behaviorists like Skinner and Watson began to discover ways someone’s behavior could be shaped by selectively reinforcing or not reinforcing it with different types of rewards.
They showed that they could train pigeons to do complex maneuvers based on how they delivered these food pellets. For example, a pigeon learned to peck three times, turn in a circle to the left, and turn in a circle to the right. They could train these complicated behaviors just based on a reward system, and they discovered that there were these different reward systems that worked to reinforce behaviors, but some were more powerful than others and harder to extinguish.
Once an animal was trained into a behavior pattern, they would keep doing the behavior, even if they weren’t getting the reward for a longer period of time if they had been trained under certain circumstances or certain conditions. These reinforcement schedules were referred to as variable or fixed.
A variable reinforcement schedule was not predictable and would happen at random times (variable interval) or after a random number of tries (variable ratio). Fixed reinforcement was what it sounds like: consistent and predictable. No matter what the pigeon was doing, every set time period (fixed interval), e.g. every minute or every two minutes, or every number of tries (fixed ratio), the pellet would come.
The ratio was based on maybe the number of pecks or the number of whatever other behavior, and then the interval had to do with the passage of time. You had that on a variable schedule or a fixed schedule.
This principle of operant conditioning extends to more modern contexts like lottery tickets, slot machines, and, on the technology front, devices like smartphones and applications like social media.
Slot machines follow the variable ratio, meaning that you don’t know when you’re going to get the reward. You don’t know when you’re going to hit the jackpot. If you think of a slot machine, you don’t know how many pulls of the lever is going to get you the prize. You just keep pulling and pulling. Maybe you hit it three times in a row and then not again for 20 times, or maybe you hit it every 10th time for a little bit, but there’s no way to predict it. That schedule is the most reinforcing and the one that is the most associated with this particular kind of behavioral addiction.
But it is the smartphone that has truly turned humans into pigeons from an operant conditioning perspective.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the childrens’ book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus”, by Mo Willems. In the beginning of the book, the bus driver walks away from his bus. He says to the reader, to the kid, “Is it okay if you watch my bus? But whatever you do, don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.”
The whole book is basically the pigeon trying these various methods to convince the child to let them drive the bus. Finally, the big buildup is that the pigeon goes absolutely bonkers, yelling “LET ME DRIVE THE BUS!!!” I feel like that response is a part of our brains. It’s almost like we’re the kid that’s not letting ourselves drive the bus, and we’re the pigeon that wants to drive the bus. Ultimately, usually the pigeon wins.
How to Stop Checking Your Phone for Texts
So how are we pigeons with our digital devices? First, we’re always tapping or scrolling. Our fingers are like beaks. Sometimes we don’t even realize what our fingers are doing, they’re just tapping or scrolling. This more animalistic part of our brain has gotten ahead of our frontal cortex goal-oriented part. Second, a notification summons us to the phone and oftentimes we stay to get other rewards. Do you want to know how to stop checking your phone for texts? Notifications (sounds, vibrations) signal our brains that a text, like, response or other reward has arrived on our phone. It’s like the food pellet for the pigeon. Before we know it, our fingers are furiously tapping a response and then our brains are waiting for yet another response.
The principles of fixed and variable rewards come into play. Imagine being able to get a fixed reward as often as you like. Every time someone wants to find information, they can pull up their browser and find the information they need.
On the other hand, the variable reinforcement is very powerful on a phone. When you post on social media, it is easy to become engrossed with when someone will ‘like’ your post. When you text someone, you check your phone expectantly, waiting for how they will respond. Each ‘like’ or response is a shot of dopamine to the brain, a reward that makes you eager for more. Because we know there is the possibility for instant gratification (variable reinforcement), we are on the lookout for it.
Sometimes those likes or response texts come quickly, other times they are slower or more inconsistent. You keep checking your phone, eagerly awaiting the next one. This is also the case with Twitter, where there’s always content in your feed to scroll, but you never know when you’re going to get that really juicy morsel of content that really resonates. This type of conditioning underpins the behaviors that lead to technology overuse and digital addiction.
The irony is that in the ‘old days’ before the internet, if you sent a letter to a pen pal, family member, or friend, or an application to a college, you still checked the mail expectantly when you believed there was a chance the response would arrive in the mail. The difference is that because it arrived so much less frequently, the addictiveness was diminished and the brain response less intense. Everything just happens faster now.
We’ve all become the pigeon. You don’t know when you’ll get the reward, but you will get it after some random number of taps. You will get something. Our brains are trained to keep looking for it. We’re seeking something that we don’t know we’re seeking. These devices were designed with these principles of operant conditioning in mind. Part of the reason the Mo Willems book is humorously resonant is that we can related both to the perspective of the bus driver (“What am I doing? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”) and the pigeon (“Let me do it”, “I’m just going to do it”).
Overuse of Technology Effects
What are the effects of technology overuse? Like the pigeon in the book, we get increasingly irritable when the pace of rewards slows on our devices. People who overuse technology have difficulty ‘pulling away’ from their devices to re-engage in the world, and get annoyed when others prompt them too. Irritability and emotional reactivity are common negative effects of technology on mental health. Another common effect of technology overuse is increased difficulty tolerating boredom. As with other addictions, people who have digital addiction have trouble staying away from their smartphones and feel an urge to use them first thing in the morning. In addiction literature, this behavior is referred to as an ‘eye-opener.’ This type of behavior demonstrates that they have lost their capacity to regulate their behavior because their digital device is the first thing they are reaching for.
How to Stop Technology Addiction
The first step of how to stop your technology addiction is to break up the cues associated with your habit. Do an inventory: when are you on your smartphone the most? On the couch at night when you’re tired? On the toilet? Waiting in line?
Once you have a better understanding of these cues, resolve in advance to deprive yourself of these familiar contexts so the addictive intensity of the pairing (context + phone) is diminished. The key to this behavior shift is advance intentionality. Like many other addictions, moderation often doesn’t work with digital addiction. You may need to put your phone in airplane mode, put it away, or tell yourself you’re not going to use it for a certain amount of time. Make that advance commitment – plan a schedule.
However, it’s not just places and activities that are habit cues. Emotions are too. Have an honest conversation with yourself, or talk with a loved one or a therapist about what types of emotions tend to trigger you to go to your device. Is it boredom? Anger? Sadness? Anxiety? The next time one of those emotions emerges, take stock. Maybe you will notice the feeling first. Or perhaps you will become aware of yourself reach for your phone first. Either way, catch yourself in the moment, check in, and ask yourself what is happening. This pause and self-awareness then turns something that has become automatic and gives you a choice in that moment.
Not consider what you want to replace your technology overuse with. How better to stop technology addiction than replace internet connection with real connection? There are two essential forms of connection that are keys to being healthy. The first is our connection to nature. Go outside and engage your senses and be in nature. Whether it’s active (running, biking, walking, hiking, etc.) or passive (sitting with a drink and taking in a beautiful day), step into the majesty of the natural world around you.
The second essential form of connection is relational connection. Not surprisingly, this is an area that our therapy practice specializes in, improving relational awareness and fostering relationship connection. But you don’t need to be in therapy or a relationship expert to make meaningful change. The book ‘Missing Each Other’, written by neuroscientist Edward Brodkin and Ashley Pallathra, talks about how to build connection with people and reconnect with others. Exercises help the reader learn how to develop interpersonal skills, such as the ability to tune into physical and emotional states of others.
It is impossible to ignore the impact of technology on human life. But technology doesn’t have to be avoided as long as it can be responsibly managed. There is a difference between use of technology and technology overuse. We can enjoy the benefits of digital connection while being mindful of the negative effects of technology on health, and even more importantly, emphasizing authentic connection.