Digital dopamine: When technology becomes addictive

Christian Berdahl, the founder of Shepard’s Call an Evangelical Ministry, led a two-day workshop called, Digital Dopamine, at the English Oaks Church, 1260 W. Century Blvd., Lodi, on Saturday and Sunday.

Have you ever gone online for a specific search, only to fall down the scrolling rabbit hole, and before you know it an hour has passed and you forgot what it was you were searching for?

For many people, navigating the internet labyrinth has become more onerous, and for Christian Berdahl, the founder of Shepard’s Call Ministries, a cause for concern.

“People spend an average of six to seven hours on the internet a day,” said Berdahl, who led a two-day workshop titled “Digital Dopamine” this past weekend at the English Oaks Church in Lodi. His workshop focused on the addictive behavior of technology and the neurological effects technology has on its users.

Two years ago Berdahl became engrossed in the research surrounding technology and its effects on the brain. His campaign started with a speaker series titled “What is Technology Doing to Us?” which cataloged the evolution and diversification of technology.

Through his extensive research, Berdahl encountered neurologists and scholars that linked the effects of technology on the brain to a dopamine stimulus resembling the effects of drugs on the brain.

During his presentation Berdahl cited an interview with Facebook co-founder Sean Parker in which Parker admits that the company’s early objective was to consume as much time and attention of a user as possible.

Parker has said the methodology behind Facebook is to create a social-validation feedback loop, which is meant to exploit the vulnerability in human psychology.

“The world’s epicenter of technology, over in Silicon Valley, knows how to tweak the brain. They know how the brain functions, and like Parker said to exploit its vulnerabilities,” Berdahl said.

Berdahl focuses on the practice used by technology companies to engage users known as “brain hacking” or “addiction coding,” a method used by tech companies to study people’s actions in order to understand what draws and keeps them online.

The unhealthy relationship between tech users and their tech vice can not be solved by time management alone, Berdahl says, because the very purpose of brain hacking is meant to keep people stimulated in a dopaminergic state in which they are unable to concentrate because their brains are focused on many different things at one point in time.

Berdahl points to the research of Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Gazzaley’s work regarding media multitasking and its effects on the brain have shown that the interruption of technology has severely impaired people’s ability to concentrate.

“Our ability to focus is being undermined by the burst of information by our emails, texts, tweets, snaps, and notifications, which fractures our thinking and causes problems with our concentration,” Berdahl said.

A 2015 study commissioned by Microsoft Corporation found that the increased use in mobile app technology has shortened attention spans from 12 to 8 seconds, which makes a human’s attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. A Reuter’s fact sheet published in 2018 noted that people were checking their phones every 30 minutes, even while watching television. The ubiquity of digital gadgets and the amount of time spent on them has become more pronounced as younger generations who grew up in the age of technology are more likely to be addicted to their tech than people 45 years and older.

“I have to be honest, I am glad my children are young adults because I would not want to be a parent of young children in this day and age,” Berdahl said.

Berdahl criticized tech companies for employing methods to tech gadgets that casinos use to entice gamblers to walk into a casino.

“You can’t get mad at yourself for being caught in that trap, because the trap is set for you to fail, to get lost online, to be drowned in ads that take you from one page to another to another to another,” Berdahl said

Berdahl argues that tech companies take advantage of feelings in a manipulative way to achieve financial objectives.

“The product they are selling is inventory of advertising space,” he said. “Get more attention and more people online, move that traffic to other websites and get people to buy things, that’s how these websites are free for us to use.”

Berdahl believes that in addition to the ethical or moral quandary, people have surrendered their intelligence, decision-making power and free will to feed their technology habit.

“You get that dopamine hit the instant you check your phone and see the notifications,” he said.

During the presentation, Berdahl cited an interview by CNN host Anderson Cooper with former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, who left the company because he felt its practices used to engage users were unethical.

In the interview, Harris explains the intricacies of how tech companies use brain hacking to get users hooked.

“Phones are like slot machines. Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit,” Harris said.

According to Harris, tech companies are inadvertently shaping the thoughts and feelings of people, and as a result are programming their brains.

Harris said companies like Google and other social media platforms are not looking at users as people, but as crash test dummies, testing what new techniques they can use to keep people engaged and online longer.

“In the race for attention you have to do whatever works,” Harris said.

Berdahl fears that as people, especially children and teens, become more secluded and engrossed in their technology, they will become more apathetic and despondent to the world around them.

“As parents, we have to become informed. We need to know what is going on, we need to take the reins and say let’s go hiking, let’s go outside, let’s do something that gets kids off the screens,” Berdahl said.

He suggests people dedicate two to three hours a day to being off screens completely to help parents establish a more profound relationship with their children, and to encourage children to gain social skills and knowledge about the world around them.

“I fear for what the future will look like if the next generation of children who are expected to run it lack the empathy and the attention to do so,” he said.

Since leaving Google, Harris co-founded the Time Well Spent movement and the Center for Humane Technology, seeking to restore a healthy relationship between humans and technology and time spent online.

Berdahl said he understands how technology has become embedded in work, school and life, which is why he does not suggest people toss their devices, instead recommending people power down and re-engage the real world.

To learn more about Berdahl’s Digital Dopamine, visit www.shepcall.com, and to learn about Harris’ work to create more ethical technology visit, humanetech.com.

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