Tech’s obsession with addiction will hurt us all
Warning: This post contains a discussion of suicide.
Addiction is the inability to stop consuming a chemical or pursuing an activity although it’s causing harm.
I engage with almost every substance or behavior associated with addiction: alcohol, drugs, coffee, porn, sex, gambling, work, spending, devices, and social media. I’ve abused all of them, but don’t think I’m addicted. On a balanced scorecard, these substances and behaviors, abuse and all, have been a net positive in my life, even @twitter.
Most disease and hardship for our species has been a function of scarcity — too little salt, sugar, fat, approval, safety, opportunities to mate. As a result, when we find these things, our brain produces the ultimate reward, the pleasure hormone dopamine. And it makes sense. Nature rewards behaviors that ensure the propagation of the species.
The assembly line, processing power, and Amazon Prime have not only met the minimum thresholds for survival but created a new threat to our species: superabundance. Diabetes, income inequality, and fake news all are a function of our belief that more is better. Jeff Bezos capturing and hoarding the GDP of Norway doesn’t make sense for the species, but his instincts (fear of starvation, wielding power) reign supreme.
Survival, propagation, and consumption should result in the next generation being smarter, faster, and stronger. Where things have come off the rails is a function of our innovation economy moving faster than our instincts. Historically, humans have engaged in activities that have natural stopping cues — the end of a chapter, the end credits. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix have systematically eradicated stopping cues. Even casinos are deliberately laid out without hard angles, so it’s all one continuous space and you keep moving through it, on to the next game.
Technological progress lapping the calibration of our instincts culminates in an endless scroll. We’re unable to find the off switch. Unlike our parents and grandparents, for us, dopamine release no longer depends on sacrifice, engagement, or grit, but on sitting still, as in 15, 14, 13 seconds until episode five of Killing Eve will begin. There are more filtered photos, more porn, more equities, more margin, more dopa, and more time without the nuisance of needing to engage in life.
The most recent crack dealers are online trading platforms (OTPs). What does an endless scroll look like on a trading platform?
- Confetti falls to celebrate transactions.
- Colorful Candy Crush interface.
- Gamification: Users can tap up to 1,000x per day to improve their position on the waitlist for Robinhood’s cash management feature (essentially a high-yield checking account on the app).
Our institutions (courts, Congress, the SEC) are supposed to slow our thinking so our reflexive instincts are checked and we can decide not to discriminate, not to pour mercury into the rivers, and not to let a bankrupt car rental firm (Hertz) issue shares bound to be worthless. You lose, they win.
Technological change is vastly outpacing our species’ ability to adapt to an endless barrage of stimuli. This discrepancy in modulation has exploded our levels of teen depression and social chaos. We are in a Supermarine Spitfire, accelerating every day, hoping the fuselage holds together as we approach the sound barrier — streaming 31 seasons of The Simpsons, lifelike video games, ubiquitous porn of increasing extremes, high-def documentation in real time of the party your 15-year-old daughter wasn’t invited to, social media algorithms fueled on emotion vs. veracity, and immediate approval of margin for a “bull put spread.”
I was a fucking mess yesterday after learning of the suicide of Alexander Kearns, a 20-year-old from Naperville, Illinois, who was interested in the markets and began trading stocks. Kearns mistakenly believed he was down $730,000 after trading options on the Robinhood app and took his own life. We don’t know what other factors were at play here, and young men taking their own lives after losing money in the market is not a new phenomenon.
Facebook and Twitter do what CNN and Fox have been doing for decades, but better. I’m afraid Robinhood might become an addictive platform — Instagram for trading. Robinhood users skew young (32% of visitors are between 25–34). The firm reported 3 million new accounts in Q1 2020. Half were first-time traders. In addition, with Vegas and sports wagering all but shut down, OTPs have become the place where emerging gambling addiction can take root and/or a rehab facility where your sponsor is a dealer.
Learning to invest and understanding the markets are good things, as is connecting with friends online… to a point. Social media and gambling have the same addictive psychological mechanism: variable rewards (when you keep performing an action in hopes of getting a possible but unlikely reward). This is the type of behavior that’s the “most addictive and hardest to stop.” Robinhood management and investors have taken cues from Big Tech and made a conscious decision to disregard the well-being of our youth for personal enrichment.
Some additional data on the surge in online trading:
- Excessive trading may be triggered by an addictive process.
- 12% of all trading activity is from day-traders, yet day-traders are only 1.6% of all profitable traders.
- Men trade more than women, and unmarried men trade more than married men.
- Stock market crashes have been linked to upticks in suicide.
- Investors with a large differential between their existing economic conditions and their aspiration levels hold riskier stocks in their portfolios.
Most articles will focus on what we, Americans, view as the profound risk with the surge in rookie online traders… that the markets might go down. Most market tops coincide with retail investors entering. We haven’t, to my knowledge, seen the scale of a market crash driven by twentysomethings investing government rescue funds, levered up via preapproval on their smartphones.
Our elected officials and gross idolatry of money and innovators have overrun the institutions charged with slowing our thinking and keeping our kids safe. Joe Scarborough put it well: “Mark, Sheryl, and Jack, you have revealed yourselves to be vapid vulgarians who put at risk Americans’ health, racial justice, fair elections, and basic truths.”
Where do we turn? The bulk of the pressure to protect kids from device addiction falls on parents — limiting use (severely) and getting other parents at school to limit use as well, so kids don’t feel they are an exception. It’s difficult, and it needs to be done. An “electronics fast,” perhaps for the whole family, can allow the nervous system to reset. Lowering your dopamine threshold allows a smaller amount of pleasure to be satisfying.
The threat of addiction has been slowing our household down. One of our sons demonstrates behavior consistent with device addiction. It’s terrifying. Everything he does, says, and works toward, is in pursuit of the dopa hit waiting on his iPad. His mom and I are doing what most parents would do — reading, seeking outside help, limiting use. But more than anything, we’re trying to slow things down. Time with him, especially outdoors or with books. Time in bed with him telling him stories about his grandfather becoming a frogman in the Royal Navy. Slowing everything down. It appears to be working.
I see Alex Kearns, and I see my oldest son. A nerd, with a big smile, fascinated by the markets and seeking dopa hits. I can’t imagine the pain of that family. I can’t imagine how we’ve lost the script, letting the meaningful—innovation and money—trump the profound: our kids. The youth suicide rate has increased by 56% in a decade. Girls between 10 and 14 had a tripling of self-harm episodes between 2009 and 2015. Teens who are on social media for more than five hours a day are twice more likely to be depressed than those who are on for less than an hour.
Is it any wonder Tim Cook doesn’t want his nephew on social media? If he wasn’t Tim Cook, would he also say, I don’t want him to have an iPad either?
The weapons are our phones and tablets, and the bullets are social media firms headed by sociopathic oligarchs. And now, we may have a new menace preying on young men: online trading platforms.
We are a virus-ravaged nation where curfew alerts are sent to our phones. Innovation has become synonymous with exploitation. We find solace in the market being high, but the market is not a reflection of the economy or progress, but increasingly of the ability of a few firms to arbitrage the gap between the pace of technology and regulation. It’s depressing. What to do? I’ll check my likes, mentions, and stocks.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Join a network of nearly 3,000 alumni worldwide by signing up for the July Strategy Sprint, taught by yours truly. And our guest on the Prof G Show is evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who thinks virtue signaling could actually be a huge force for good.