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Author Interview: How Technology Hooks Us

A row of people using their smart phones.
Robin Worrall for Unsplash

The incessant use of smartphones and other technologies has addictive qualities. New York Times Bestselling Author Adam Alter explores how tech companies market products that hook teens and what parents can do. KUNR’s Anh Gray spoke with him about his new book Irresistible: The Rise Of Addictive Technology And The Business Of Keeping Us Hooked.

Technology has addictive qualities because companies design products to be that way. That’s the premise of Alter’s new book, which explores how companies leverage human behavior and create devices that hook people.

Alter is an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. In his latest book, his research examines human decision-making and social psychology. He explains that, while technology can be a positive tool, the fixation on it is a modern-day problem that needs to be analyzed further because it bears the addictive qualities of substances, like alcohol or drugs.

“The essential question the book explores is whether you can make a product addictive in the same way as you might make a substance or a drug addictive,” Alter explained. “And the bottom line is, the answer seems to be, yes, that if you have access to the right kinds of data to run the right kinds of analyses, and you also have the right theories about how humans are driven to engage, you can actually create products that are very difficult for humans to resist.”

Alter’s research shows that technologies, like Instagram, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, are designed and marketed to keep users coming back for more. He points to the example of a feature called “streaks” on Snapchat as a method that the social media platform has been employing to keep teens engrossed. A snapchat streak is when users "snap" each other back and forth at least once in a 24-hour period, or else the streak is lost. Alter explains that teens have reported anxiety when a streak is lost.

“What we derive is a sense that we've got something that's quite precarious and that we're going to lose it, and so we end up making decisions that are not at all about making us happy or healthy or [have] any positive effects,” Alter said.

Alter calls the streak one of the more insidious ways technology companies create products to hook teens. “When you talk to teens, a lot of them report that sense of urgency that comes with the idea that they might lose those streaks,” Alter explained.

Credit Adam Alter, courtesy photo
Adam Alter is an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department.

But since using technology has become an integral part of everyday life, Alter says parents should have an open dialogue with their children about the addictive nature of using it. He says it’s helpful to set up ground rules that include building time away from technology or creating a physical environment that removes the temptation altogether.

He also says parents should consider downloading and familiarizing themselves with the various social media platforms their children use, so they can be more informed.

“One of the things I recommend to parents is, you don't want to intrude on your child's life on that particular platform, but it's worth actually opening up your own account and just seeing what the features look like to know why it might be that there's some charm to Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook,” Alter said, “so you don't just feel like there's something wrong with the younger generation. You actually have a sense of exactly what they're experiencing.”

Adam Alter will be discussing his research work as a guest speaker at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine 2019 Healthy Nevada Speaker Series on Monday, November 18.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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