It’s the first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the morning, and the last thing I do before heading to bed. It’s like an itch that needs to be scratched, an incessant pull, always lingering in the back of my mind.
When I was much younger I was a smoker. The feeling is familiar. When I quit, the absence was at first shocking. I couldn’t escape the constant suspicion that there was something I needed to do. And then I would remember, oh right. Now is one of those times I’d be smoking.
It’s like that.
The cravings come in a familiar pattern. When I wake up. After a meal. During a car ride. During a walk. During a break. Before entering a new social situation. After a really fun party. After a really terrible meal. When I’m bored. When I’m lonely. When I’m sad. When I’m anxious. When I’m really, really excited.
Except now I don’t smoke. I just go on Facebook. Then Instagram. Then Twitter. Then Flickr. Then Email. Then repeat. All. Day. Long.
It seems kind of funny that I would be addicted to my phone, since I never wanted one in the first place. 11 years ago when I went into premature labor I had to call my mother from the hospital room. My first smartphone didn’t come until many years after, when I was due for an upgrade and flip phones were no longer an option. It was 7 years after the first iPhone was released (and the same amount of time since those kids were born). I was the last person I knew to get a smartphone. It was 2014. And I fought tooth and nail against it. Constant connection sounded like a nightmare, and in many ways it has been. For the past four years it has become more and more a part of me. A part that I don’t particularly like.
But it turns out, this isn’t really my fault.
All these years that I have been fighting to stay off my phone, an even more powerful force has been fighting to keep me on it. Facebook. Google. Apple. Twitter. Instagram. The designers and programmers have been working to soften my self-control and take over my brain. They have designed their systems to deliver variable rewards – meaning that you aren’t rewarded with a “like” or a “heart” or a “happy emoji” every single time you log in. But if you log in enough, you will receive one of those dopamine boosts. And boost your dopamine it will – many of the mechanisms that we see in place in social media – the like button, the pull to refresh, the red color of our alerts, was deliberately engineered to create an addictive response. To lure us in, to check just once more, to click, to refresh.
And to what end? Well, certainly not for our benefit. Contrary to what many people believe, we the basic humans, are not Facebook’s customer. We don’t pay to use the service. We simply go there, voluntarily and for free. We are Facebook’s product. Facebook is selling us – our attention, our habits and clicks, our personal information, our likes and dislikes – it’s collecting and selling all of those things to corporations. So the corporations can sell us things.
So what are we even getting out of this deal? It’s a question I ask myself, almost daily, as I hand over my time and attention to my little black mirror. What am I even doing here? I wonder, while scrolling through meaningless Facebook posts, discovering that more and more of my “friends” are so easily swayed to take the bait and share fake news. What does the future look like, when already the sixth grade cafeteria is completely silent, each child (except my own!) staring blankly into their little screens, looking for meaning and validation and the acceptance so elusive in middle school? How do we turn back from this, break the addiction, walk away? How does this all end?
Or the question, more accurately, has it all ended already?