Are we constantly checking our phones because we're assholes or addicts? The Guardian reports on a new study that used BlackBerrys to measure the willpower of its subjects. Researches found that participants were mostly able to resist the impulses to drink, fuck, and even sleep. Twitter, email, and other forms of media, however, were simply too strong.
I question the validity of this study for a few reasons: the small sample size, the difficulty in measuring desire, the use of BlackBerrys. At the same time, the results do highlight something interesting about our addiction to technology. Team leader Wilhelm Hofmann points out that we all make choices that measure impulse and consequences. It's not so much that it's easier for an alcoholic to quit drinking than it is for a Twitter addict to log offline — it's that the negative effects of the latter addiction are harder to recognize.
Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not "cost much" to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist.
With cigarettes and alcohol there are more costs — long-term as well as monetary — and the opportunity may not always be the right one.
Well, when you put it that way... I'm sure many of us have had moments when we realized it would be better to get a full night's sleep or finish an important assignment rather than opening another tab on our browsers. But we continue dicking around on the internet, anyway. I wouldn't go so far as to call us all addicts, but for many of us, putting the phone or computer down is easier said than done.
Again, compared to alcohol or cigarettes, Twitter is pretty innocuous. The difference between "I shouldn't have an eighth shot of tequila" and "I shouldn't refresh this page 14 more times before bed" is a significant one. But there are consequences to both, as Hofmann notes.
Even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still "steal" a lot of people's time.
Still, it's hard to imagine a "rock bottom" for checking one's phone too frequently. In fact, I'm sure the vast majority of Twitter and email "addicts" pinpointed in this study live fully functional lives. If anything, the study is something worth thinking about — and hopefully the start of more research along these lines. What are the longterm effects of this dependence? How does the constant impulse to check our phones affect our attention spans? And why do I care how many Twitter followers I have?