The Slot Machine in My Pocket

I’d love to say the experiment of decreasing my iPhone use is an unqualified success, but like so many things in life, it’s fluctuated.  My screen time was down significantly last week but is up again this week. That’s a bit of a false metric though, because I also used my phone this week for navigating two long photoshoots in the northmost sections of our state.  The truth is I know when I’m doing well at reducing my screen time and when I’m not. 

There are days that I have lots of energy, am productive and ignore my phone.  And then there are days that I’m tired or become fatigued.  Those are the days that I tend to use my phone more as an indulgence basically to get a dopamine hit.  And this is the situation despite having deleted most social media and games, including WordPress and Facebook.   Now when I’m bored or tired, I check email, look at Instagram (which I kept to share photos with my niece), or look at a few news sites I maintain. Note: Since deleting the Facebook app, I’ve all but stopped using it altogether.  But then they own Instagram so I think they’re still ahead.

Why are we so addicted to our phones?  The analogy has been made that they are like having a little slot machine in our pockets.  When we check our mail, we might find something of interest.  When we check Instagram, we may see a like or a comment, or the holy grail of IG, being tagged.  All of this makes us feel good which reinforces checking our phones more often.  Some have likened it to a slot machine, every time you play, there is the chance for a payout. For a slot machine, the payout is coins; for social media, it’s likes, comments, tags, etc.  And doesn’t that feel good? And just like a slot machine that doesn’t payout, sometimes when we check there are no likes or comments.  It’s all rather random. So why don’t we stop checking?  Because our brains are wired so that when we get this seemingly random reward, we will continue the behavior longer than even if we are rewarded every time we check.  Psychologists term this random delivery of rewards “intermittent reinforcement”. 

Yes, the image is seductive, but then again so are our phones.

App designers are aware of all of this.  That’s why they build in features such as badges you can earn, “like” buttons, reminders, and other various rewards.  It gets us to spend more time on their site which, of course, is how they make money.  It’s especially powerful with social apps like Facebook and Instagram because it’s not just the app rewarding us, it’s our friends, family and colleagues who add like and comment.  We check our devices because we have a fear of missing out on these notifications.  And at some point, we begin to check without even thinking about it.  One article cites that the average person checks their phone 150 times per day.

This leads to a lot of ethical dilemmas.  Is it okay for companies to use intermittent reinforcement to shape our behavior?  A lot of companies use psychology to make their product more attractive but at what point do they cross the line.  Some have compared social media using intermittent reinforcement to make apps more “addictive” to the way tobacco companies increased the nicotine content of cigarettes.     Is this a valid analogy?  I’m an adult and struggle with this, what’s the effect on children and teens who are more likely to engage in impulsive behavior?  What I do know is that I need more constructive and adaptive habits that I consciously choose when I’m tired and bored. 

Note: I started watching The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary the interviews former employees from Google, FB, Twitter, and others on this very topic.  The first half hour was very engaging.  More on this later.  Thanks to my friend Oish for the recommendation.

This is the source for the statistic on the average number of clicks per day.

Images are from Pixabay

17 thoughts on “The Slot Machine in My Pocket

  1. sloppy buddhist

    I appreciated this doc…topical in these times…from the good to the bad and I enjoyed the idea of humane technology…thanks for sharing the slot in your pocket Chris…I’m trying weekending…hard not to peak though ☺️🤓💫

  2. spartacus2030

    Sounds like you need to go to a casino. When you stop believing in people, the craving to check goes away. This usually happens when life nears its end. Only then do we realize what tiny, helpless creatures we truly are. What most all people need to do is change their diet, and we both know that’s not possible. Most by nature are too weak minded for that. Yes, junk food too, is addictive.

  3. David P.

    I’m an 18th century man so I never jumped on the bandwagon. How did carriers convince over 5 billion people that they needed a cell phone? Are people so easily manipulated? In the old days, if I was out in public and needed to make a phone call, well, there were phone booths everywhere.

    The cable company called trying to pitch their services, and the rep asked how many devices I owned. “Well,” I said, “I’ve got a stove, refrigerator, transistor radio …” Honestly, I had no idea what they were asking me. I’m not a slave to gadgets. I have a laptop to process my photos, and a TV that is used as a monitor.

    Frankly, it makes me sad to see people staring at their phone all day. Like zombies walking down the street who have grown a new appendage. A few years ago, there was a power outage across the Southwest. Nothing worked for days — not even cell phones. The neighbors were clamoring to use my old fashioned AT&T landline. It was sort of ironic, but a disturbing revelation of the times in which we live where people have become so dependent on technology.

  4. Sandra

    Yes, we like to think we are so sophisticated and modern but we are all just lab rats in the eyes of big biz. Thoughtful post Chris. Thanks for sharing your take.

  5. Sarah

    I’ll definitely try to watch that documentary, Chris, thanks for the recommendation!
    I’ve observed the same behaviour on myself- when I’m productive and creative I don’t need to look at my phone, but when I’m bored… 😂 Ah well, I think we both are doing rather well compared to others. Average of 150 times? I’m positive I don’t look at it that often! 50 times though… could be. 😂 Interesting post, Chris!


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