Why your smartphone is irresistible (and why it's worth trying to resist)

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, Adam Alter, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business and the author of "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology," shares his humble opinion on our addiction to technology.

ADAM ALTER, Author, "Irresistible": In 2004, I left my family and friends in Sydney, Australia, to begin a Ph.D. in psychology at Princeton.

I was lucky to find a group of close friends, but we were all busy, and at the end of most days, I would return to my room alone. One night, I stumbled on a primitive online slot machine game called Slots. U.S. law prohibited online gambling, so I wasn't playing for real money, but I found the game impossible to resist.

Instead of winning money, I would win small rewards in the form of bells and flashing lights.

Bells and flashing lights may sound like trivial rewards, but, in those moments of loneliness, they scratched a psychological itch. I played so often that I started to imagine the reels on the slot machine spinning during the day.

Meanwhile, in one of my classes, we were learning about a series of experiments on isolated caged pigeons. When the birds were trained to peck a button that sometimes delivered food, but sometimes delivered nothing, they pecked the button hundreds of times, even when they were no longer hungry, because their isolation was soothed by each gamble.

This was a eureka moment for me. I was behaving a lot like these birds. Slots wasn't nourishing, but I played for hours. My obsession lasted six months, only ending when I started dating a classmate.

I learned that addiction isn't only about injecting a drug or playing a game compulsively. It also has to scratch a psychological itch. For me, that itch was loneliness. For someone else, it might be depression numbed with narcotics or boredom numbed with a video game.

Now, the world has changed a lot since I stopped playing Slots more than a decade ago. Many of us have those psychological itches that need scratching, from anxiety to stress to low self-esteem. And we have access to relief in the form of smartphones and tablets.

Wherever we go, those devices bring us social networks, games, e-mail, and text messages, each delivering or withholding rewards in the form of replies, shares, and likes, just as that small button did for the caged lab animals and slots did for me.

For most of us, it's difficult to avoid the screens that deliver addictive experiences altogether, so the key is to live part of each day screen-free.

Lock your smartphone and tablet in a drawer from, say, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. You will know you're succeeding if, for at least part of the day, you can't tell that it's 2017 based only on what you can see.

When you're looking out at the ocean or standing in a forest or having a conversation with someone, it could be 2017, but it could also be 1950 or 1700.

The key is to make at least a thin slice of every day timeless.

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