The Psychology of Digital Addiction


Final one in this series on neuroscience and digital for the moment. This is a slightly extended version of the piece I wrote for the Sunday Business Post last week, to include so tips on using digital most effectively in your day to day life. Interestingly, these guys really seem to know what they are doing when it comes to digital…


My job as a strategic planner is to have as broad an understanding of consumer behaviour as possible, in order to understand how it can be changed. All of this comes down to the power of habit. Great marketing (whether it’s for retail sale or a new party leader) needs to understand how people already act and think (and often, act without thinking) in order to change the default settings or introduce something new. But something else is changing our ‘default settings’ far more than advertisers ever could by themselves – digital.

We are standing on the precipice of a globally defining time that affects not only every single aspect of society but also our own personal identity and neurological make-up. Really. A true revolution – just like the agricultural and industrial ones before. This change is so powerful, we have in fact, become entirely tethered to our mobile devices, emails, systems and social networks… like life rafts, for fear of missing out or even being left behind. A surprising result of which being that many of us are developing unhealthy and unchecked addictions to tech – a sort of ‘technomania’ I guess.

Offices equally have also embraced technology with a rapid adoption. A ‘no brainer’ I suppose – given how it has lifted the boundaries of communications and allowed for thousands of new businesses that couldn’t even exist without it. But has it all been that, well, productive?

By the end of today you will have received hundreds, if not thousands messages – all of which demand your time (even if it is just enough time to disregard many items as irrelevant to urgent tasks). And equally, as perpetrators, you will send off hundreds of messages through social, email and text. Do you expect those messages to receive equal consideration and response after hours (after all even in the gym or kitchen, the mobile is to hand, right)? Perhaps your office is the victim of the epically long email thread, instead of shorter conversations or more effective client meetings? Perhaps, you’we even found yourself judging those who choose to ‘switch’ off when they get home or go on holidays…

Oh well – if we are all being super busy, it means we are being super productive right? Wrong, sorry. Unfortunately,  despite how multi-tasking makes us feel productive,  the time we spend on a screens is by no means a measure of our effectiveness or even our relevance in work… or in evaluation of our literal ‘social status’ for that matter.

To be fair, we can’t help ourselves. It’s habit. The brain is not a static lump of grey mush sitting pretty until it eventually deteriorates in old age. It’s the exact opposite. It is, in fact, the worlds most elegant and unsurpassable supercomputer. One through which millions of little pathways, are all powered and shaped, then reshaped by our habit loops. Habit loops such as checking our mail before going to bed, scrolling through our timelines every hour, crushing candy on our commute or the impulse to share every ‘unique’ thought we have on social. And the more we practise these habit loops, the stronger they becomes – just like smoking or overeating.

One difference though – the ‘trigger’ (your phone) unlike alcohol, cigarettes or that bell for poor Pavlov’s dog… is always in your hand. What’s more, it blips and bleeps at you, pleading you to engage with it as much as possible. Fine tuned so that it’s just enough to keep you hooked, but not enough to ‘OD’ on the behaviour. (Don’t believe me? Look up the strategy behind the success of Candy Crush). Therefore typical ‘addict’ behaviour emerges in a matter of mere weeks, not months or years. You’re as vulnerable when you’re as 60 as you would be at 6 years old!

This is a real issue – reaching the point at which is causing anxiety, clinically diagnosed OCDs and depression in some cases. A point where our digital behaviour is reshaping how humans even perceive the concept of ‘others’ versus the ‘self’. The creation of benefits of relationships without the ‘demands’ of friendship. None of this is personal opinion – just highly researched fact. In the marketing world, 10 years is an awfully long time to be referring to digital as a ‘new’ media – exasperating even. But equally, if one imagines the brain’s evolution as roughly the size of a football pitch, digital has only been around for less than half an inch of that pitch…  Well, give em an inch and it will take a mile.

As consumers and marketers we need to start pro-actively examining our habits around this amazing era of tech we are so lucky to live in – both in the office and in our personal lives. We need to start consciously start deciding how we wish to engage with digital in only the most time effective and results positive ways. As a consumer, this means pro-active selection is more important than ever. As a marketer it means getting behind real consumer strategy, rather than the latest digital gimmick, to insure you are making cut-through in a timely, relevant way on a consumer by consumer basis.

The digital world is amazing, but we need to treat both it and the human mind with respect.

After all, one thing both ‘devices’ have in common is that there is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure.

PS I am a strong believer that in this case the problem can also provide the solution. Next time you have a free afternoon or evening, spend the day with your laptop and phone and try out a few of the following suggestions:


  • Search ‘unsubscribe’ in your email and go through the results. Which do you want to keep? Which would you only like to see when you choose to view them? Delete the others. Create automated folders for the rest. Be sure to also tick ‘mark as read’, so that little notification number doesn’t keep clocking up and stressing you out.
  • If you are a marketer, avoid being the victim of purge by simply asking people how often they want to hear from you and what about? We really shouldn’t have to say it but the day of ‘one size fits all’ email marketing solutions should have died years ago. (Get in touch if you’d like to know how).

Guilt Tripping ‘Must’ Reads:

  • Download the Readability App and relevant plug-ins save yourself part of the stress of unread articles. These days we tend to ‘skim’ information (such as the 9 @ 9 headlines) rather than getting in depth into any one subject. But lengthy articles / reading sessions can reduce are stress and be a lot more productive in terms with supplying is with new, usable information. Readability works as a button on your laptop – which saves those lovely articles for later, in a print only format. You can then read them in your own time via any device (including kindle),  search for topics within your reading pile (if say you’re compiling an article) or select a read based on how much time you have (e.g. 6 mins waiting for a bus).

The Social Media Cleanse: 

  • OK so I love social media obviously… and nobody wants to be that guy but seriously, decide which social networks are working for you relative the amount of time you feel you have to put in to them and which are not. Whether it’s promoting your business, staying in touch with niche interests getting a new job, or staying in touch, the term ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, comes to mind. I ditched Facebook and Tumblr a year ago, in favour of annoying people twice vai the platforms Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram. The extended family I threw onto one big whatsapp group. OK it’s still annoying but at least I know everyone that’s commenting. I also saved the birthdays of the people I cared about to my Gmail calendar, on annual repeat. This is great because they think I’m super thoughtful (oh the LOLz).
  • Go through each of your app settings individually and unselect those which you do not want to recieve push notification or alerts from.
  • I reckon Twitter lists is the most underrated feature on any social app. Avoid the scrolling through streams of the irrelevant to find the nuggests you want by creating lists. Use a list for friends, your industry, your locality, entertainment and then any interests. This way each timeline becomes like a sort of personalized magainze and you can basically ignore your main timeline apart from checking out what’s trending.

Your Awful at Multi-tasking, but Your Phone isn’t: 

  • Make your phone work a lot harder for you using the app. This is a simple but powerful app that uses basic formula of ‘IF x’THEN y’ to do the menial repetitive online tasks that take up a lot of human time otherwise. For example ‘IF’ I post a picture to instagram ‘THEN’ the app also posts the same picture to twitter – as a photo rather than those pesky links. Or if my GPS says I’m returning home, then the app will take my phone off silent. Or if it is going to lash out of the heavens tomorrow, I will get a notification in the evening so I remember to leave my umbrella by the door. If you have smart home items,  this app is a must have too.

Rhythm and Blues: 

  • Our digital habits just before bed are probably the most important in terms of their effect in how we behave and feel. Research has shown that Irish peak internet time kicks off from around 10PM. But several studies have shown that blue light (like that off the device you’re reading this from right now) is highly disruptive to our sleeping patterns at night – shifting your rhythm by as much as 3 hours according to one Havard Study… So if you’re a late night reader, perhaps opt for your Kindle over your iPad for that last hour before nodding off.

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