Natural-born addicts: the human addiction circuit
Nearly 50 years ago the US Congress moved to ban tobacco ads on TV. It was finally recognized that tobacco was harmful to health. And nicotine was highly addictive, creating legions of unwilling addicts. This took a decades-long fight with the tobacco industry who tried to disprove both. The same has happened with gambling and lotteries and is lately happening with sugar. Half a century later more than 1 billion people still smoke, and there are 8 million tobacco-related deaths per year. Gambling continues to take its toll on addicts and their families. Sugar and processed foods are creating a global obesity crisis. The opioids crisis in the US is becoming a presidential campaign topic.
This happens because humans are natural-born addicts. All addictions seem to have the same physiological basis on the brain. The addictive substance triggers the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens which produces a pleasurable sensation. Over time, tolerance is developed and the comparatively lower release is started to be perceived as a threat by the amygdala, and thus craving starts. This physiological circuit makes addiction very difficult to overcome, even without physical withdrawal symptoms. The capability of people to overcome addiction spirals is linked to genetic sensitivity, which makes some people especially vulnerable. The environment is also critical, with exposure to the substance or behaviour making recovery very difficult.
Addicts and society pay health, economic and life fulfilment costs because of the exploitation of this addiction circuit. First, health, taking quality-adjusted years (QALYs) out of lives. For example, smoking is estimated to reduce around 3.5 QALYs by some studies. Second, economic, direct and indirect. Again, smoking has an estimated direct cost of up to $5.000 per year (varies widely per jurisdiction), health costs in the US in the high tens of billions, and estimated lower associated wages. Finally, there is a life fulfilment cost. The time we spend engaging or recuperating from the behaviour is forever lost to our loved ones and to our own development. Alcohol is a good example, with later-stage alcoholics losing their ability to function almost entirely.
Of course, drinking, smoking and gambling can be fun and enjoyable experiences. Moderate use can improve our lives without incurring heavy costs. This requires to avoid triggering the addiction circuit too strongly. The problem is that often companies are incentivized to maximize addiction. With addiction circuit triggering being directly linked to economic gain. This creates widespread mass addiction until the industry becomes regulated and incentives are aligned towards responsibility. Thus the possibility of exploiting the human addiction circuit makes regulation of industries engaging in addicting behaviour absolutely necessary.
Digital addiction: the lastest addiction circuit exploiters
Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed the blossoming of the biggest addiction yet, digital media. US adults spend more than 12 hours on average on media, more than half of which is on digital media. This means that adults spent two-thirds of their waking time engaging with media. No wonder there is less time left for engaging with our family, our friends or our community.
Digital media also has the hallmarks of addiction. We have all felt the compulsion to check one more email, scroll down one more time in the endless screen, play one more candy crush level or watch the next episode in the series. Our nucleus accumbens is in full swing, and our amygdala is ready to ping us if we try to stop. Most of us are addicted to our smartphones and our other devices and for the most part, we know it.
Digital companies also profit from addiction circuit triggering. We have many corporations that make money mostly out of our attention, Facebook, Google and Netflix being the prime examples, but many others trying to join into the party. Thus, the best brains in the world are now being funnelled to perfect and reinforce digital addiction cycles. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working to increase advertising revenues or product engagement. They are perfecting every way in which the screen can make it slightly more difficult to turn it off. Success is keeping us some extra seconds and making us come back a little more.
This addiction is very different from others, it doesn’t have direct health costs and its economic cost is minimal. It is our life fulfilment cost that is staggering. We are sacrificing a third of our waking hours, a third of our life at the digital altar. Of course, digital media can be enjoyable and useful, there are no physical withdrawal symptoms and it is voluntary. This makes it difficult for regulators and the public to act on it. As a consequence, the smart engineers in Silicon Valley are doing their job, completely unchecked. Digital time gradually edges up crowding out other activities and making it more difficult to escape.
12 hours might seem like a lot, but the real danger lies ahead. New interfaces are being deployed: voice, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality. They are more immersive, they are more entwined in our lives, they will be even more addictive. They might take the 12 hours closer to 18, gradually erasing any non-digital activities. If we allow digital addiction to continue unregulated we are in grave danger. The companies that make money out of engagement and their engineers won’t be able to change. They addicted to making money themselves. They think (probably correctly) “if I don’t do it, someone else will.”
Of course, the cost is not only the hours. It is also the quality of our human lives. I still have to meet someone that feels that the last four hours of digital consumption are more fulfilling than a walk in the forest, time with friends, spirituality, physical activity or creative endeavour. But the more digital expands and the rest of our lives are diminished, the harder it is to get out of the digital whirlpool.
Act quickly: lives are being squandered as we speak
We will act as a society and some of us will act as individuals. As a society, we will regulate digital addiction like we have regulated other addictions before. As always it will be difficult and it will take time. There are strong vested interests and the specifics are sufficiently different from previous addictions. While we get our act together, people lose their lives in part, or even in whole to the digital addiction. All of those human relations and endeavours that could have been but were sacrificed at the altar of engagement metrics.
For all of us, the admonition is clear. Wake up to digital addiction in our own life and that of our loved ones, and do something about it. Help wake up regulators and policymakers so digital addiction is reined in. We cannot ask the merchants of digital addiction to regulate themselves, no addiction circuit exploiter has done it before.
For those working near digital addiction, we need to wake up. Digital addiction is real and we should be helping to reduce its impact. It will require sacrifices, but good causes always do. In this time of scarce engineering talent, it is possible to make a difference and shift company policy. If you have qualms about the work you are doing, you are probably right to be concerned.
In 2012, Youtube proudly set the goal of increasing the time spent on the service from 100 million daily hours to 1 billion daily hours. In 2017, they achieved the goal ahead of schedule. Should Youtube employees be proud of their achievement? I think they should be very concerned about what they have done. Tobacco executives ingeniously pushed to sell more cigarettes to more people. Many people enjoy smoking and are able to quit at will. However, there are also many lung cancers, unwilling addicts and helpless teenagers. I am sure there are many happy stories among the billion Youtube hours. But, what are the sad stories behind those billion daily hours? What happy stories have Youtube and many others crowded out by leveraging our addiction circuit?