Addictive Attention

In loco Parentis is a Latin term meaning in place of a parent, or instead of a parent. It refers to the legal responsibility of some person or organization to perform some of the functions or responsibilities of a parent. At one time it was used to refer to the role of colleges, with many children living away from home for the first time, and where it was believed, some form of supervision was required.

This phrase came to mind when hearing that we must turn to technology to solve the problems created by technology. For some time, researchers have been warning about the negative effect of addictive use of digital technology on our cognition, psyche and well-being. Now tech experts themselves have expressed fears about how social networks alter our emotional lives and relationships, and what they’re doing to children.

The thought seems to be that we are no match for the sophisticated machinery of engagement and persuasion being built into smart phone aps. Since technology has created this undesirable level of use – or abuse – it is technology that must create a solution. Many experts designate Apple as the company best able to address the problem of tech addiction.

As one who did not grow up in the tech world, learning about some suggested ways Apple could do this was itself an education. Specifically, what comes to light is the source of the addiction – what it is that keeps continuous attention on one’s phone.

Most people using any form of technology soon become aware of how much has become known about you through your use. This information is used to solicit ads – a source of revenue for those advertising, as well as the carriers of the ads.  Such ads are placed in ways to capture the attention of tech users, speaking as they do to already known interests of users.

Another feature is that users are notified when something in which they have expressed interest appears. Such notification, or buzzing, also occurs to alert users to social interests they may have demonstrated. Now I understand why my computer notifies me about twitter entries by people I know. Commercial interests underlie the techniques to gain the attention of tech users.

Apparently, Apple has been designated as a potential problem solver because of its role in inventing the smart phone and devising changes and improvements. One thought is that Apple could curb some of the worst excesses in how apps monitor and notify you to keep you hooked by installing ad blockers in its operating system.

Another suggestion is giving people feedback about how they are using their devices. Can you imagine your phone telling you how much time you spent on Facebook, or scolding you for wasting time on Twitter? Or suggesting you will be reminded in the future if you overstep your agreed-on time limit for social media use?

What comes to mind is the “just say no” campaign, or more significantly the use of advertising to address the dangers of, and curb smoking, which has proven successful. Using advertising would be an attempt to change society rather than building a less-addictive phone. More significant, however, is the attempt to replace what once might have been thought of as the role of parents. In Loco Parentis.

In place of parents the devices themselves will monitor your use, will set limits on time spent – or wasted – signing on to adds that involves spending money, take on the role of protecting your health, ability to focus, and emotional life.

Will technology itself prove to be a higher authority than parents? That remains to be seen.