Researchers at Michigan State University are exploring the idea that there’s more to “social media addiction” than casual joking about being too online might suggest. Their paper, titled “Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task” (Meshi, Elizarova, Bender and Verdejo-Garcia) and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, indicates that people who use social media sites heavily actually display some of the behavioral hallmarks of someone addicted to cocaine or heroin.
The study asked 71 participants to first rate their own Facebook usage with a measure known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. The study subjects then went on to complete something called the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a classic research tool that evaluates impaired decision making. The IGT presents participants with four virtual decks of cards associated with rewards or punishments and asks them to choose cards from the decks to maximize their virtual winnings. As the study explains, “Participants are also informed that some decks are better than others and that if they want to do well, they should avoid the bad decks and choose cards from the good decks.”
What the researchers found was telling. Study participants who self-reported as excessive Facebook users actually performed worse than their peers on the IGT, frequenting the two “bad” decks that offer immediate gains but ultimate result in losses. That difference in behavior was statistically significant in the latter portion of the IGT, when a participant has had ample time to observe the deck’s patterns and knows which decks present the greatest risk.
The IGT has been used to study everything from patients with frontal lobe brain injuries to heroin addicts, but using it as a measure to examine social media addicts is novel. Along with deeper, structural research, it’s clear that researchers can apply to social media users much of the existing methodological framework for learning about substance addiction.
The study is narrow, but interesting, and offers a few paths for follow-up research. As the researchers recognize, in an ideal study, the researchers could actually observe participants’ social media usage and sort them into categories of high or low social media usage based on behavior rather than a survey they fill out.
Future research could also delve more deeply into excessive users across different social networks. The study only looked at Facebook use, “because it is currently the most widely used [social network] around the world,” but one could expect to see similar results with the billion-plus monthly Instagram and potentially the substantially smaller portion of people on Twitter.
Ultimately, we know that social media is shifting human behavior and potentially its neurological underpinnings, we just don’t know the extent of it — yet. Due to the methodical nature of behavioral research and the often extremely protracted process of publishing it, we likely won’t know for years to come the results of studies conducted now. Still, as this study proves, there are researchers at work examining how social media is impacting our brains and our behavior — we just might not be able to see the big picture for some time.
Google will soon allow ads to run on addiction-related keywords and phrases after a nearly year-long ban instituted to crack down on shady providers cashing in on vulnerable patients. A small group of providers vetted by a third party have been approved by the company to appear in results for searches like “help quitting pills” or “meth addiction.”
The ban on these ads was rolled out in stages starting in September of last year in the U.S. and going global in January. It was provoked by a series of reports showing that people looking for help were being essentially traded like commodities and sent to incredibly expensive “addiction centers” that often provided little recovery help at all.
At the time Google pledged to keep the ban in place until it could find a way to reintroduce ads safely and ethically, and it has taken its time doing so. All addiction-related ad words were shut off completely, and while this introduced problems of its own (people searching for “help quitting pills” don’t want the WebMD page for addiction) it was probably the only logical choice.
Following this Google partnered with LegitScript, a Portland company that specializes in verifying medicine-related businesses online. It has a 15-point checklist to make sure businesses are licensed and compliant, list medications and treatment plans, demonstrate qualifications and professionalism (i.e. not a quack operating out of their living room), have no shady history or what have you, and so on. The whole list is here.
Only recovery and addiction centers vetted by LegitScript will be allowed to run ads against addiction-related queries on Google.
“What they were trying to get rid of were these ‘lead aggregators’ that were posing as treatment centers, but were basically selling the patients,” said RCA’s director of marketing strategy and operations, Grant McClernon. “They wanted people who were operating under state scrutiny, providing real treatment.”
“It was a wild wild west out there,” added Bill Koroncai, the company’s director of communications. “So we support Google’s work to weed out the unethical providers in the industry.”
They explained that Google originally planned to greenlight 30 providers — which is to say facilities, of which provider like RCA might have just one or dozens — but they were inundated with applications and had to expand the first wave of the program to closer to 100.
That’s not necessarily indicative of a rush on Google’s part; it seems more likely that the larger number turned out to be the realistic one if most regions and most needs were to be served. With 30 facilities you wouldn’t even have one in every state.
Addiction treatment providers won’t be treated any differently from other keyword purchasers, except that there will have to be a yearly check-up process through LegitScript to make sure they’re still worthy of being included.
It’s probably wise that Google didn’t get into the vetting process itself; this sets an easier precedent for the ad giant in that when conflicts like this one come up, it doesn’t have to hire a specialized team dedicated to combating fraud in that specific domain.
Ads should start running soon. I’ve contacted Google to confirm for confirmation and more information.
A new app called Siempo wants to un-addict you from your smartphone and its numerous attention-stealing apps. To do so, Siempo replaces an Android device’s homescreen, while also taking advantage of a number of design principles to push distractions further away, and give you more control over your notifications.
The startup, which launched a few weeks ago on Google Play, actually began as a hardware company.
A hardware startup shifts to software
In 2015, the original co-founders Andreas Gala and Jorge Selva began developing a minimalist feature phone device called Minium, in response to their concerns with today’s always-on culture. But designing hardware from scratch is hard, so they pivoted to making a mindful smartphone called Siempo using an existing handset from China.
The following year, Siempo brought on Mayank Saxena (CTO), who previously ran data storage engineering teams at NetApp, and Andrew Dunn (now CEO), who was previously the number six employee at Flexport.
“I struggled with smartphone and social media addiction as a teenager and had been working on a wearable to help people balance their relationship with tech,” explains Dunn. And Mayank, he says, “had become increasingly concerned about raising balanced children in the digital age,” prior to joining Siempo.
Unfortunately, when the company tried raising funds on Kickstarter in 2017, it didn’t meet its goal.
What the team had underestimated was how difficult it is to convince people to switch smartphones. And in this case, it wasn’t just asking them to buy new hardware – it was a request to try a whole new type of mobile experience, too.
Although the Kickstarter failed, it had provided the team with valuable feedback.
“When we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we heard from dozens of potential backers that they loved our concept but would much prefer to try and pay for a software version on their existing devices,” says Dunn. “We knew we could still build ninety-five percent of what we wanted to, so it was a clear path to explore.”
At this point, the original co-founders moved on to other projects, leaving Dunn to take the helm.
The new project, he says, appealed to him because of the negative nature of today’s technology.
“The attention economy is making people more distracted, stressed, lonely and depressed,” Dunn says. “Big Tech is unlikely to take meaningful leadership in humane design, and individuals are at a loss for what to do because developing healthier digital habits is a long-term, manual, iterative process,” he adds.
Siempo, currently in beta, aims to address this problem with a set of features that should appeal to anyone questioning if they’ve become too addicted to their phone.
After downloading the launcher from the Play Store, you can set Siempo as your default home app – meaning, you’ll now interact with its humanely designed interface instead of the stock version from your smartphone’s maker.
To lessen your attachment to your device, Siempo reverses some of the persuasive, psychologically addicting techniques that have been built into our phone software and mobile apps by developers who specifically engineered their apps to increase user engagement, without fully understanding the ethics of that decision.
Entire OS platforms and massive social media companies like Facebook have, over the years, created systems to reward users who continually check in with their phones. These dopamine-driven feedback loops create a cycle of smartphone addiction, with users having no tools to fight back beyond their own willpower.
The world is just now starting to wake up to these mistakes, including some people who built the systems in the first place.
For instance, former Facebook president Sean Parker has said Facebook’s design exploited weakness in the human psyche to addict users, while former head of user growth turned VC Chamath Palihapitiya admitted to having “tremendous guilt” over what Facebook had become. Meanwhile, former Google exec Tristan Harris created a coalition called the Center for Humane Technology, in an effort to “realign technology with humanity’s best interests.”
Siempo fits in within this broader category of self-care apps focused on a more balanced use of technology.
How Siempo works
Once installed, Siempo makes your homescreen a calmer interface, without things like badged icons or colorful corporate logos. Here, you can personalize a message that appears when you unlock your phone – like a daily mantra – and in an update rolling out Wednesday, you’ll be able to set a custom background or turn on a dark mode.
One of the launcher’s key features is how it lets you batch your notifications.
Instead of allowing apps to alert you at any time they choose, you can configure your phone to send your alerts on a schedule you prefer – like every half hour, the top of the hour, or – if you want to go all in – just once per day. (You can choose which apps, if any, are allowed to break through.)
Siempo also leverages a number of design techniques to distance you from your distractions, including by unbranding app icons and turning them to greyscale.
Plus, the launcher organizes apps into a tiered menu system where distracting apps are further away on a third page, and the location of those apps is randomized upon each visit to prevent unconscious opens and usage.
“Users have reported that merely the act of identifying which apps they want to use less creates a huge shift in their relationship with that app,” notes Dunn.
The app has now been endorsed by the Center for Humane Technology as an example of humane design.
Siempo has raised funds from Backstage Capital for its project. To date, Siempo raised $555,000 for its hardware project and $400,000 for its software.
The app is free during its beta, but plans to implement a pay-as-you-want subscription starting at $1 per month – this will make the app accessible to everyone, no matter how much they can spend. The company says it’s also talking to several startup smartphone brands to become their default interface.
Longer-term, Dunn believes the Siempo experience can span platforms.
“Siempo will be a unified layer across all your tools – smartphone, desktop, tablet, wearables, etc. – protecting your attention, preventing unconscious usage and improving mental health,” he says. “We are excited to build out an A.I. interface that can learn the user’s behavior and adjust their digital world to support their goals and intentions,” Dunn adds, speaking of what he envisions Siempo can become.
“We aim to be a good, trusted, impactful tech company that is on the user’s side, respecting their wellbeing and privacy,” he says.
The app is available on Google Play, as that platform allows for this level of change and customization. A modified version may arrive on iOS in the future.
There are a lot of movies about drug lords, drug dealers and drug addicts. That’s Hollywood for you. But two hours later, you’re back in your own world. Comfy, cozy.
What is more difficult for Hollywood to depict is what it’s like living with a drug addict, the effect they have on the people around them, plus how long people actually battle drug addiction. It’s not as sexy as snorting cocaine through rolled-up $1,000 bills in a fancy New York nightclub. Or as seedy as shooting up in a filthy public washroom.
I am a lawyer and a recovered drug addict. I became a drug addict because I got caught in a vicious cycle of depression, anxiety and addiction to OxyContin, which was originally prescribed for pain management to treat my migraines. As the addiction took off, I would substitute Ativan if I had no Oxy. I destroyed my marriage. Almost lost my career. Got in trouble with Law Society of Ontario. Almost lost my children.
While I was chasing the high, and thought no one knew, I was alienating everyone around me.
This was my life for four years.
Living with a drug addict is hell. In the incidents below, perhaps you will see someone you love who is a drug addict. Perhaps you are the drug addict who needs help. Recovery is a long road. And addicts cannot recover on their own; they need professional help. Here is what my addiction looked like.
One Saturday morning, I had so much medication in me that my children could not wake me up.
I had giant blackouts of memory
I went with a client to court one day. The client brought his business partner along. The three of us spent the entire day in court, including coffee breaks, lunch and dinner after court. Two weeks later, my client came to my office for a meeting, again with his business partner. I go and introduce myself and my client looks at me quizzically and says, “Darryl, you met him three weeks ago. We spent the entire day together.” It was like I had just met him for the first time.
A friend had loaned me $1,000 when I showed up suddenly at his office, claiming I needed it. Years later, I had no memory of asking for that loan.
One Saturday morning, I had so much medication in me that my children could not wake me up. I slept for 19 hours. My eldest son, who was seven at the time, probably had to change the diapers of my boy-girl twins when I simply could not function. It is embarrassing now, but at the time I was not the least bit bothered at having a seven-year-old change diapers.
Mundane tasks like paying bills online and picking up the mail were too much for me to handle. One day, I returned home to a dark apartment. The hydro company turned off my lights. Another day, Canada Post ceased mail delivery because I had not emptied my mailbox for weeks and weeks.
I became a chronic liar
Friends came to me and said, “We know you have a problem and we want to help.” I shot back: “Who are you to judge me?” My reaction was to deny my addiction.
When people confronted me about my problem, I lied, lied, lied. And I became indignant, too. But first and foremost, I lied to myself.
I found myself in a co-dependent relationship with a woman that I never would have been with, but for my addiction.
We went for a week’s vacation to the Jersey Shore. I remember checking my voicemail and there was one from a family law client. More ridiculous behaviour, fighting over things that didn’t matter. And I said to her: “If I have to deal with one more family law client, I’m just going to lose it!”
Sitting on the beach, I had the epiphany that something was very wrong and I needed to fix it. “I have to get clean from this addiction. And need to stop practicing family law because I hate it so much.”
When I got back after a week’s vacation, I sought help from a social worker through the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program. I knew enough that I could not fix it on my own. I closed my law practice for a year. I received a 30-day suspension from the Law Society of Ontario for badly neglecting all my clients. The law society actually did me a huge favour, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Thankfully, it didn’t ruin my career. When I re-opened my law practice, I decided to practice civil litigation, including representing accident victims against big insurance companies.
I got help just before Fentanyl became widely available. Fentanyl was looking for me. Or the increasing dosages of Ativan and OxyContin would have killed me. There is no doubt that if I had not gotten help in 2008, I would be dead now. A law school classmate of mine was addicted to alcohol and never got help. He died last year.
I know full well how lucky I was. There is help available. Addicts need to take the first step and admit to themselves that they have a problem.
When you’ve dug yourself into a hole and had the good fortune to crawl out of it, you want to keep your friends, colleagues and acquaintances from falling into it, too. And so, now I am paying it forward. I am helping other lawyers recover from their depression, anxiety and addiction.
Google is temporarily halting advertisements worldwide for addiction and rehabilitation centers, following a report last week showing it was acting as a platform for shady referral services earning huge undisclosed commissions. Read More
Smartphones are inarguably an addictive class of devices, and not just because they put an endless font of information at your fingertips. The experience of holding the phone and touching it is itself associated with that pleasure — so much so that you might wish you were doing it even when you don’t want to actually use the phone. That’s when you need one of these… Read More
The easiest way to avoid getting hooked on opioids may be to never take them in the first place. After all, an initial prescription of just a few days-worth of pills can trap patients into using the highly-addictive, often deadly drugs for a year or more. But despite the dangers, many patients don’t have the luxury of passing on potent pain killers—for instance, those stumbling into a hospital emergency room with a broken or badly bloodied limb.
At least, that’s what doctors assumed.
In a randomized, double-blind clinical trial—the gold standard of trials—a combination of ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) was just as effective at treating patients with acute pain in an extremity as three other pain killer combinations containing opioids. The authors of the study, which was published Tuesday in JAMA, suggest that emergency room doctors may be able to simply skip the opioids during and after urgent treatment.
The Food and Drug Administration announced a comprehensive, multi-year plan Thursday to stamp out the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the country—tobacco use.
The agency intends to reduce the amount of nicotine allowed in traditional combustion cigarettes with the goal of making them “non-addictive.” At the same time, the FDA will delay regulations on electronic cigarettes and other newer products to “afford the agency time to explore clear and meaningful measures to make tobacco products less toxic, appealing, and addictive,” the agency said in a press statement.
“A key piece of the FDA’s approach is demonstrating a greater awareness that nicotine—while highly addictive—is delivered through products that represent a continuum of risk and is most harmful when delivered through smoke particles in combustible cigarettes,” the agency wrote.