Screen Surrender

Literary Review, March 2017

Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching

Adam Alter, Bodley Head £18.99

When I was a child, I had a number of relatives who kept the TV on all the time, turning down the sound with obvious reluctance whenever we came to visit. Conversation was conducted with furtive glances towards the flickering screen, as though we couldn’t possibly be as interesting as what was displayed on it. There is nothing new about a preference for the latest technology, as it then was, over interaction with actual human beings.

What has changed is the sheer diversity of technology and the speed with which it is updated, creating the (apparently) irresistible temptations cited in Adam Alter’s book. Home computers, smartphones, virtual reality devices: we are already, in only the second decade of the 21st century, inhabiting a world which would have looked like science-fiction not so long ago.

I rarely watch TV and I’m not on Facebook but I do have a smartphone. When I began reading Alter’s book, I wondered whether I might be spending too much time checking emails and Twitter, but an ‘Internet Addiction Test’ in the first chapter established that I’ve nothing to worry about. Most of his advice for avoiding over-use, such as keeping smartphones at a physical distance some of the time, had already occurred to me.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the dystopian world that Alter opens out in the book. It is packed with individuals who spend entire days playing computer games, wasting money on gambling sites and fretting about how many ‘likes’ they have on Facebook. Alter doesn’t mention the 45th President of the United States but Donald Trump is a striking example of someone who is unable to stop posting score-settling tweets in the early hours. Sad!

Alter’s book is about behavioural addictions rather than the more familiar substance addictions. He is an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University but he writes in an engaging journalistic style, using interviews and academic research to demonstrate the amount of time people spend online. Some of the results don’t seem that surprising: users of an app designed to track smartphone usage discovered that they were spending between one and four hours a day on their phones, for instance.

A much bigger piece of work, in which a group of researchers at the University of Southern California reviewed dozens of studies, came up with an estimate that 41 per cent of the population had suffered from at least one behavioural addiction in the past 12 months. Their definition was very broad, including addictions to gambling, love, sex, shopping, exercise and work as well as the Internet. So was their list of negative consequences, which ranged from damage to relationships to ‘involvement in dangerous situations, physical injury and impairment, financial loss, or emotional trauma’.

I was still digesting this claim and trying to square it with my own experience when I came upon another study, this time suggesting that ‘up to 40 percent of the population suffers from some form of Internet-based addiction, whether to email, gaming, or porn.’ That’s pretty alarming, on the face of it, and it sent me scurrying to the notes at the back of the book. The figure actually appears to derive from a study of the impact of ‘problematic Internet use’ by a group of American students on family relationships, which may not tell us much about the behaviour of the wider population.

There is no doubt that Alter’s speaks to a widely-shared anxiety about the impact of technology on human beings. At the same time, one of the biggest problems created by the Internet is mentioned only in passing in Alter’s book. Women’s organisations and children’s charities are hugely worried about the effects on adolescent boys of viewing violent and degrading porn on their smartphones, skewing their expectations of relationships. This is sometimes described (not by Alter) as an addiction, an approach I find deeply troubling. Watching videos of women being beaten and raped is a choice, and one that deliberately ignores the pain that is inflicted on victims, many of whom have been trafficked or otherwise coerced.

He does write about World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game which he describes as ‘one of the most addictive behavioral experiences on the planet’, but he doesn’t mention its citation at a notorious murder trial. Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, spent virtually an entire year playing it. Most players of computer games don’t become mass killers but it is a vivid example of the complicated (and notoriously difficult to unpick) relationship between online behaviour and real life.

I would have liked this book more, I think, if it looked beyond the impact of behavioural addiction on individuals. Vast generalisations such as the one at the end of the book – ‘half of the developed world is addicted to something, and for most people that something is a behavior’ – demand social and political context. I’m not convinced by the claim, but let’s say for a moment I’m wrong. Why, then, isn’t Alter isn’t curious about the impact of all this mind-numbing activity on our critical faculties, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the rise of mendacious politicians like Trump?

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