My eyes go ablaze whenever I see an overly-saturated background. I see dozens, if not hundreds of tiny red blood cells move about. The condition has gotten so bad that the sight of a clear, blue sky is no longer a pleasant one for me. I have seen two Optometrists, and one Ophthalmologist in the past eight months and they are baffled by my condition. By all accounts, my eyes are healthy. And so I return to typing away at my computer.
My friend’s eight-year-old child started wearing glasses when she was four. Her back and neck hurt sometimes but according to her doctors, she’s a normal, healthy girl. Her back still hurts, though, as she slumps on the couch to watch Netflix on her tablet.
My rich friends all have back problems. Their doctors can’t seem to find anything wrong, however, so they spend a lot of time investing in alternative medicine. They take yoga classes, invest in ergonomic desks, and regularly go to their chiropractor or acupuncturist. The treatments work, and for a couple of hours they feel normal, so they return to looking at their phone for ten hours.
Our screens are killing us. They are giving us neck-related strain, hurting our children’s eyes, ruining our backs, making us depressed, and we can’t seem to do anything about it. Our entire lives are now accessed through them. They are the vehicle from which we do our work, plan our day, find our way, and procure our entertainment. Their influence seems inescapable.
We can’t go back. That time has passed. Nor do any of us really want to. Adoption of things like smartphones has increased dramatically over the years to the point of near ubiquity, and that trend has not reversed. Why would it? Our screens are kind of awesome. They make communicating with our friends so easy, and they ensure there is never a shortage of dank cat memes.
We tell ourselves that our lives would be worse without the screens, and to a certain extent, that is true. A lot of genuine good has been orchestrated through them. It’s so much easier to do nearly everything now because of our screens, but they are also very, very addicting.
They were designed that way. According to former Google product manager and now fierce critic Tristan Harris: “There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.” The architects of online products want us to spend countless hours watching, writing, looking, typing, building. The more time spent straining our necks downwards, the better. Anything to keep our attention. Whether scrolling through a newsfeed, taking in an endless homepage, or clicking on that notification/anti-notification, everything on this screen wants your sockets glued here forever. Just one more update, one more level, one more video, one more article.
Who cares if these articles are 4 or 5 minutes of meaningless garbage? Who cares if the information they claim to have is unsubstantiated? Click on the next one. Maybe the next one will be better?
In breaking down the psychology of tech products in his seminal book Hooked, Nir Eyal discussed how successful products mostly play on your psychology to establish an addiction:
“Once we’re hooked, using these products does not always require an explicit call to action. Instead, they rely upon our automatic responses to feelings that precipitate the desired behavior. Products that attach to these internal triggers provide users with quick relief.”
This is the reason that you wake up every morning to scan the latest on Twitter, Facebook, or Medium. These applications have hijacked your brain so that you associate a habit such as waking up or a feeling such as boredom with their product. Bored? Log on to Facebook. Depressed? Check out Tumblr. Feeling existential dread? Medium has an article you should read. It’s not that bringing you information is terrible, it’s that these products purposefully design themselves so that you use them instinctually. You need to be on Facebook in the same way that I need a drink. Need has very little to do with it. We are both psychologically compelled to do so.
Screens could have been a godsend. Instead, they are an addiction, whose side-effects include bad backs and necks, fatigue, depression, increasingly diminished eyesight, and a bevy of other ailments. We have suffered physically and politically from this abusive relationship, but ultimately it will be the younger generations that will endure the most pain. They have not known anything but the screens, and it will be harder for them to remove themselves from such addictive technologies. Molded since childhood to receive continuous stimulation, we will sadly only comprehend the true extent of the damage done to them once they mature into screen-riddled adults.
There are, of course, things you can do to lessen your addiction:
- You can take regular breaks from screens, and force ones on your children.
- You can set your screen away from your bed at night.
- You can turn down or remove the blue light on your screen.
- You can place your screen on grayscale.
- You can download applications to make your screen less compulsive. I personally enjoy Siempo.
- You can divest from applications that have endless feeds (i.e., Facebook, Tumblr, etc.).
Greater people than I have listed the many methods for taking back a small amount of control from your screens. I would recommend checking out the Center for Humane Technology.
Ultimately, however, you alone cannot overcome a system that is by its very nature addicting. This isn’t a battle you can win through self-control, not when literally every online application and device preys on circumventing that control. You are only one person. Facebook has entire departments of people and machines figuring out ways to break you.
The true blame lays at the feet of the builders of this system. Facebook. Alphabet. Amazon. Netflix. Disney. Yes, even Medium. They built products meant to monetize our attention, regardless of the consequences. These companies now need to be forcibly pushed into prioritizing our health, because they are not going to make such changes freely.
Already, we are seeing how these industries are reacting to our calls for change. When the city of San Francisco became the first country in the nation to make cellphone retailers display radiation levels, The Wireless Association CTIA retaliated by canceling its yearly conference there, and then tried to pressure Apple, Cisco, Oracle to do the same. Marriott sent the following to the city’s mayor:
“CTIA — The Wireless Association, which is scheduled to hold a major convention here in October 2010, has already contacted us about canceling their event if the legislation moves forward. They also have told us that they are in contact with Apple, Cisco, Oracle and others who are heavily involved in the industry, as you know, about not holding future events in your city for the same reason.”
These companies will attempt to maintain this strategy as long as they possibly can. If the history of addictive products like tobacco has taught us anything, it’s that amoral companies like Facebook and Amazon will litigate in perpetuity. It took the federal government decades (until 2017) to force tobacco companies into admitting how deadly their product was. Hopefully, we will not have to wait so long for Facebook and Amazon.
The tech industry isn’t going to start prioritizing our health until they face our wrath. They need to know that our screens are not our Gods. That abusive practices will be abandoned or regulated into oblivion. It will require all of us to prioritize a healthy Internet, and that means voting out politicians that are backed by abusive Tech companies such as Facebook and Amazon (check out Opensecrets.org to see who is taking these companies’ money).
This movement will be hard, but I am sure that it can be done. If angry mothers have to choose between the health of their children and cat memes, then I think we all know that Grumpy Cat is getting whacked.
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