Our smartphone obsession looks a lot like the obesity epidemic, MIT psychologist says

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Smartphones pictures Reuters/Charles Platiau

  • MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle says technology and food both play vital roles in our lives but can easily be misused.
  • Like food manufacturers that load their products with sugar, Turkle says tech companies design their apps unethically.
  • In the future, she hopes we look back on this period as a gross misunderstanding of tech's power.


When Sherry Turkle looks at how obsessed people have become with their personal devices, she sees the traces of another public health epidemic: obesity.

"You have to eat, and people need to learn how to make good food choices," Turkle, an MIT psychologist and author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," told Business Insider. She said the same is true for technology.

Over the past couple decades, Turkle has become a leading voice in the ways technology has been tearing at our social fabric. Roughly 77% of Americans own a smartphone, and the typical person touches a phone roughly 2,600 times each day. Through polls, studies, and interviews, Turkle has concluded this digital lifestyle has made us worse at making in-person connections.

"The way I like to put it is technology can make us forget what we know about life," she said. "One of the things it's made us forget is that we need to tend to our relationships and other people and our own feelings."

Personal tech is designed a lot like processed food

The way much of technology is designed mirrors the food industry, Turkle said. Just as major food corporations sell processed foods that are loaded with added sugar and chemicals meant to keep people eating, big tech companies have been repeatedly accused of designing their apps to maximize the time people spend on them.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, has seen the engineering tricks firsthand. Features like autoplay videos, endless scrolling, and gamification encourage constant use, Harris has said. They help explain how people may plan to watch just one YouTube video and glance at Twitter but somehow end up spending a half hour on both.

sherry turkle Jemal Countess/Getty Images Sherry Turkle.

According to Turkle, the result is a society that craves its technology at all times, regardless of whether it interferes with social lives or goals, such as getting a restful night's sleep. In essence, the tech - like sugar-laden food - has become too powerful for human brains.

The science of addictive behavior largely supports Turkle's claim. Sweet and salty sensations activate the same reward centers of the brain as red notification badges, vibrations, and dings. In each case, the brain releases a small amount of dopamine , a reward-seeking chemical that promotes repeat behavior.

Without any oversight that regulates how tech companies design their apps, people are left to rely on willpower alone, Turkle said. Looking at the obesity epidemic, that strategy hasn't worked at all. The US obesity rate has been growing for the past decade - today, 36.5% of America is clinically obese.

The overuse of tech could become just as great a public-health issue

Already, the generation raised on smartphones is showing signs that overuse can be dangerous. Teen suicides now outnumber teen homicides, and mental-health experts suspect phones are playing a role. Specifically, social media has led to greater isolation and loneliness since kids would prefer to be by themselves than socialize offline.

Turkle said the interviews she's conducted make her think that parents are recognizing these deleterious effects and starting to set boundaries for their kids' smartphone use. Her hope is that people will eventually look back at the decade-long period after 2007 - the year the iPhone was released - as a period of misguided obsession.

"I'm hoping that we're going to look at this [era] as a profound misunderstanding of what this technology could do," she said.

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