Five months into 2018 and think pieces on “breaking up with your smartphone” are starting to feel a little cliché. At the same time, we also seem to be at the beginning of a societal renegotiation of the role data-driven technology plays in our personal lives.

Clinicians agree that these technologies have addictive properties and while it is possible for an individual to be addicted to it, most of us can relax – we are not addicted to our smartphones.

But don’t go back to indiscriminately scrolling through your Instagram feed just yet. Remember, big tech companies have invested heavily in perfecting how to engage directly with each individual user and have previously boasted to advertisers about their ability to monitor your emotions in real time. Helping advertisers connect to highly specific and microtargeted customers is how they make their money. They use data, collected on every digital move you’ve made for years, fed into algorithms based on cutting edge behavioral research to predict how you’ll react so they can encourage you, as an individual, to act, whether that is checking your device or making a purchase, often borrowing techniques from the gambling industry.

With Cambridge Analytica and Russian Twitter bots, consumers may say they are ready to give up tech entirely, but they don’t mean it.Click To Tweet

With Cambridge Analytica and Russian Twitter bots, consumers may say they are ready to give up tech entirely, but they don’t mean it. It’s part of our lives, part of society and remember, it is incredibly useful. (I mean, remember when you had to use a map??) At the same time, very little is known about the potential harmful effects of substantial screen time and constant connectedness, especially for children and young adults. While there has been an uptick in discussions citing studies that connect smartphone use to teen suicide, for example, researchers argue that while there is correlation, they haven’t found causation. (And the same correlation exists between potato consumption or listening to music and teen suicide.) This is an important distinction because while increased screen time and teen suicide may coincide, we can’t say that one causes the other. Without a greater understanding of the issue, a singular call to limit screen time may mask the true medical, psychological and sociological problems behind these trends and prevent us from finding the right solution. Following Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony on Capitol Hill, Congress asked the National Institutes of Health to brief them on what we do know about tech use and addiction and to propose a research plan to fill in the gaps.

Companies like Instagram aren’t going to wait for research to catch up or consumer sentiments to go sour. They have just announced a tool that will allow users to see their time spent on Instagram accompanied with language from Instagram CEO, Kevin Systrom, acknowledging user’s “time should be positive and intentional” and that they “want to be part of the solution.” Google, Apple and other independent app makers have also launched tools to help users manage their screen time.

Even so, as we know with dieting, knowledge of your own behavior only goes so far. It will be interesting to see which is more impactful, the mindset shift in what is expected of social media companies in fueling addictive behavior or the information to better understand individual habits when engaging with social media platforms. As these tech companies own all of the best data needed to answer these questions, it is important that they are part of the solution. Nevertheless, this feels like the dawning of new era in a very young technology.

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