Last year I completed a fantastic psychology course which introduced me to concepts behind compulsive behaviours, addiction and mental illness. One of the most memorable and renowned theorist I came across was B.F. Skinner who was a behavioral scientist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Skinner proposed that ‘free will’ was an illusion and that human action (behavior) was dependent on consequences of previous actions. So, if the consequences are bad, there is a high chance that the action would not be repeated; however if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated was highly likely. B.F. Skinner called this the Principle of Reinforcement. One of his most acclaimed experimental devices was the ‘Skinner Box’ which used a pigeon in a box structure to show how free will could be manipulated in order to ‘condition behaviour’. It’s fascinating stuff. Here is a great expert talk about the Skinner Box principles and gambling.
Anyway, bringing this to the present. Consequentially developers in industries such as gambling, gaming and technology (e.g. social media) have leverage the principles of Skinner’s behavioural conditioning concept to develop their commercial offerings with the consumer target in mind – the younger the better it increasingly seems.
Why the Younger The Better?
Well, because the younger you are, the more likely you are going to have less self-control, be open to risky behavior, be less self-aware of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities plus delayed gratification is just not something on your radar. I’ll come back to this.
I recently heard the news that the World Health Organisation has now classified gaming addiction as a mental disorder requiring medical intervention. It defines the disorder as a pattern of gaming behavior (either digital or video gaming) as characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. It goes on to say that ‘For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.’
Typically, mental illness itself is where a sustained behaviour impacts your ability to function and can lead to signs and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, aggression, eating disorders and obsessive/addictive behavior to name a few.
But hang on. Haven’t we all got a bit of an addiction thing going on as I consider our current use of devices, gaming and social media apps these days? – I cannot count the number of times my 13-year old son has walked in on me sitting on my bed and head down screen tapping after repeatedly telling him “I’ll be there in a minute!!” (just to let you know that I am really working on this, so don’t judge me!!). So, the real issue here is how any sustained kind of compulsive or addictive behaviour can impede our ability to get on with our daily life activities in a timely and engaging way. My words guys.
So back to my “The Younger The Better” statement…..
You know that there was a time when addictions such as alcohol, gambling and drugs for example where seen as adult addictions (mostly – not always I know). However, today the internet has really helped to lower that access threshold to a broader and indiscriminate audience (young and older) without enough attention given to unintended consequences in many cases. The truth is that the application of behavior conditioning is very much at play in a lot of what gets our undivided attention these days.
The Psychology Today explains addiction as a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substances or activities for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite the detrimental consequences’. There is also scientific evidence about the similarities of the effects of addictive behaviors to a Dopamine hit which is responsible for the brain’s reward and pleasure centres.
I have said that generally the younger you are, the more likely you are going to have less self-control, be open to risky behavior, be less self-aware of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. So it is no surprise that gaming and social media companies have a robust marketing strategy targeting our young audience.
At a technology event last year, the ex-president of Facebook, Sean Parker explained that when Facebook was being developed, the focus was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” He says it was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content. I also found his statement – “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” – quite disconcerting.
Remember my point about B.F. Skinner’s theory about conditioned behavior? You should really read this article about how technology and social media companies are constantly developing ways to hijack our time and thereby enable addictive behaviours.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the great things that the internet and social media have made possible. We just need to make sure that we stay in healthy control of the our actions as we continue to engage with these platforms. We need to be in control and not the other way around least we find ourselves screaming for help. Right?