Algorithms of Addiction | Tomorrow's World

Algorithms of Addiction

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Has digital addiction come between you and your family? Is your kids’ screen time too much? What about your own? Learn the key to making a difference!

Are your children addicted to their phones? Do screens keep them away from worthwhile pursuits? Or, if they are still too young for technology, do you worry about how they will handle these devices as they grow up? Our oldest child is almost a teenager, and my wife and I have—so far—tried to limit our children’s access to phones, iPads, computers, and television. Yet we know that, sooner or later, our children will need to master the technology that will be at their fingertips—indeed, technology that might very well be required for schoolwork or their future careers!

Why do they need to “master” technology rather than simply “use” it? You might not be aware that very intelligent people have put together algorithms that are primarily designed to do one specific task: drive up user engagement (“Social-Media Algorithms Rule How We See the World. Good Luck Trying to Stop Them,”, January 17, 2017). Social media pioneered it, but now this data mining of individuals through their interactions with various devices is commonplace. It happens every time we access the Internet—and our interactions with the Internet have also become increasingly common. It’s not just our computers and smartphones anymore; even our televisions and radios are now frequently intertwined with the Web.

Always Watching

Every time we use the Internet, algorithms keep track of what we look at, how long we look at it, and whether that interaction can be monetized. How best do you monetize people’s time on the Internet? A simple answer is to increase the amount of time they spend on it; engagement is the key, and the algorithms are very effective at increasing that engagement. When my family has an opportunity to go out to a restaurant, we frequently see the tragic sight of many patrons glued to their phones. People usually stereotype teens as being absorbed by their phones, but, increasingly, every member of the family is interacting with the Internet instead of with each other. They might each have their own age-specific social media apps, but all are interacting with screens instead of family.

I can fall victim to this, too! If I try to put my phone away for a “date night” with my wife, my phone fights back at being rejected for a few hours. It starts buzzing to let me know who scored a touchdown, who liked a status, or what a politician just did. When my fantasy team is at stake or some celebrity I never heard of is embroiled in some scandal, should I really focus on my wife, much as I love her? Describing the addictive nature of smartphones, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma quoted an expert explaining that there are two types of people with smartphones: those who look at them in the morning before going to the bathroom, and those who look at them in the morning while going to the bathroom.

The algorithms that focus on engagement do not care what type of engagement keeps people online. While some level of entertainment can be benign, marketers want to maximize our involvement, and, sadly, the most addictive and engaging content on the Internet is content that causes anger. This is true of both social media and traditional media—even media that might formerly have been described as news outlets.

Changing Our Behavior for the Worse

Social media often provokes our anger toward very real people we might otherwise know little about; through technology, we can now be upset about their political views, judgmental attitudes, or humblebrags. Things that would never be said in person are frequently posted for the whole world to read, and, tragically, we love to have it so! How often do you leave social media more upset or frustrated than when you got on it? One site that I use was getting so toxic that I had to back away from it to the point of only looking at it once a month. Many of you might guess what happened next: The website sent me daily reminders about all that I was missing. Come see the new posts! The emails tried all the hooks—and once I revisited the site, the emails stopped until I took another break.

Traditional media hooks us with anger about larger issues. When you think of watching the news, do you usually think about positive news stories or about bad news? We already know the agenda of our politicized media outlets, yet they can still tempt us to return! How often does it seem that liberal networks have anything good to say about Donald Trump or anything bad to say about President Biden? We already know what they will say! Moreover, they know that anger sells, so, if their ratings drop, they routinely increase their bashing of Donald Trump or another conservative. And conservative media outlets do the exact same, with the obvious difference that they readily bash President Biden or another liberal to drive up their ratings. These outlets have the audacity to call themselves “news outlets,” though they would more accurately be called “we-make-you-angry-so-you-will-watch-our-ads-so-we-can-make-money” outlets—but that does not exactly roll off the tongue. Proverbs 22 provides a strong warning about media outlets that have this type of effect on us (vv. 24–25).

The Antidote to Internet Addiction?

Let’s return to our original question: How do we help our children avoid becoming addicted to screens? The simple answer is that we must model the behavior of being free from that addiction ourselves! We may preach at young people all day long to be careful about their social media and screen time, but what do they see from their parents and other adults? Do we exercise the control that we want them to have? Or do they see us failing to practice what we preach?

Children will know if their parents are more strongly influenced by “the news” than by the Bible. They will notice if they are more addicted to the anger their screens provoke than the comfort the Scriptures provide (cf. Philippians 4:4–8). Our youth understand that some time on screens may be necessary for legitimate purposes—yet they recognize that most of the time adults spend on screens is simply entertainment, a waste of time, or worse.

As parents, we must set an example of interacting wisely with the Internet and screens—controlling them instead of being controlled by them. Our children need to see that we can put down our phones and turn off our screens. A family movie night can be nice, but do we also incorporate family game nights? We can read any number of things on the Internet, but few activities can be as bonding as reading to our children from the Bible or other good books. Most families can greatly benefit from going for walks or playing outside together. The key lesson is simple: The most powerful way we can help our children learn to control their use of the Internet is to set the right example in our own lives.

The algorithms designed to keep our children engaged are also designed to keep adults engaged—and there is a lot of money to be made from keeping you, me, and our children glued to a screen. Let’s do our part to control these temptations in our own lives, so our children can learn how to do so in theirs.


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