On Internet Addiction

Mar, 2019

Silicon Valley has become a malevolent force in our lives because it gives us what we want, so much so that it often crowds out what we need. This is by intention, and now so obvious that the tech giants can no longer hold their Venetian masks in place. Google gave up on its slogan “Do no evil” as the more we learn the creepier it sounds. The science behind getting people addicted to the internet is now called “behavior design”, and its father is a Stanford professor named B.J. Fogg. But behavior design is just an extension of B.F. Skinner’s school of psychology called “Behaviorism”. In the 1930s Skinner experimented with rats in a reward box to figure out how to best addict them to pushing a lever in the box that provided food. He quickly realized that the most addictive arrangement was “variable rewards” where the rat sometimes got a food pellet, and sometimes got several pellets, and sometimes got none. This is the science behind the Las Vegas slot machine, and explains why gamblers will sit for hours slowly losing their money until they reach their “pain point.” Now with computerized slot machines a pit boss can sense when the player is approaching his pain point, and so approaches the victim and rewards him with a free dinner or free show ticket for being a good customer of the casino; and many of them will continue to play or return later to play.

In 1999 China opened its first internet addiction boot camp where the child is committed by its parents to a year-long military style living experience free of electronics. The Chinese government estimates that there are now 23 million internet addicts in the the country. The parents of addicted children are desperate. Their children become dysfunctional and antisocial; and when the parent attempts to remove or restrict the smart phone, the child becomes violent or suicidal. In China parents can turn to the government for help. In the U.S. parents are on their own as even the state programs that help with drug addiction do not cover internet addiction. According to a study by Common Sense Media, 50% of child smart phone users admit to internet addiction, while 60% of parents says their children are addicted.

In his book Disconnected psychologist Thomas Kersting reviews the science of internet addiction and offers some concrete suggestions:
(1) Keep your child’s bedroom clean of screens, (2) Your child’s phone is your phone, (3) No electronics during dinner, (4) Limit screen time to 2 hours a day, and (5) Be a role model.

The most prestigious private school in Silicon Valley is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, and about 75% of the students are children of tech executives. The school allows no electronics until the eighth grade. Our tech masters know the truth about what they are doing to our children. If tech were a force for good, then over the past 20 years our children would not have become more obese, more depressed and more suicidal.

– Gary Gallo, MD