We're obsessed with instant gratification. Which makes us look great on the outside, but leaves us with nothing on the inside.
We're surrounded by addicts; everyone who's constantly pressing, clicking or nearly getting squished by cars while glancing at their phones. So basically, that's all of us.
It's not the phones that we're addicted to, it's the intermittent zaps of gratification that they provide. Like sugary sweets, cheating at the self checkout, or flirting with your friend's sister the stripper, the good feelings are intense, but fleeting.
The most sugary of the techno-sweets is Candy Crush and their ilk. All these games feature mini-rewards, that release dopamine and hit the same pleasure centres in the brain as poker machines, and anything else that's addictive. (http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/apr/01/candy-crush-saga-app-brain)
Despite what the game developers might claim, Candy Crush etc are basically games of luck where it's impossible to predict when you're going to win, and you're permitted to win just often enough to keep you coming back. The exact same theory applies to the matches provided by dating websites, pies at the football and late night kebabs.
While the problems of poker machines are well known (http://www.problemgambling.gov.au/facts/) the results of Candy Crush addiction are less widely publicised. The creator of 'Flappy Bird' (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-flight-of-the-birdman-flappy-bird-creator-dong-nguyen-speaks-out-20140311), one of the iPhones most addictive ever games, was so sick of hearing horror stories from those that couldn't stop playing that he actually took it down, despite it making him tens of thousands of dollars a day. That's like Gina Rinehart closing a mine, just because it's bad for the environment.
Games that distract us from more meaningful pursuits are nothing new. It could be argued that board games, sudokus, crosswords and card games all perform similar mind manipulation, because they do. The problem is that these new games hit those pleasure centres more accurately than ever before, maximizing joy, but minimizing effort and the duration of that joy, as a result hooking you faster and forcing you back far more frequently. It's like crack cocaine, but in a phone.
This new breed of games are exactly like a television game show that's missing the only element that gave those shows any cerebral value - the questions.
Email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever all operate in a comparable way. Every time you receive a like, share, retweet, message or other bit of electronic ego stroke, it hits a similar pleasure centre. (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/feb/03/twitter-resist-cigarettes-alcohol-study)
All this proves something we instinctively already know. Repeatedly checking your phone or playing some game for a little poke of pleasure, ding of distinction, or vibration of verification is far more immediately gratifying than doing something even slightly intellectual, but option two takes extended periods of thought and concentration, and as a result is more inwardly rewarding.
The benefits of reading, for example, are well-known and often repeated. (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/10-benefits-reading-why-you-should-read-everyday.html) Especially compared to Facebook, which has been proven to be bad for your mental health. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-murder-and-the-meaning-life/201404/7-ways-facebook-is-bad-your-mental-health). Candy Crush is even worse, with exercise, eating and well and just about anything else being a better way to get a dopamine hit. (http://hamptonroads.com/2014/04/candy-crush-addiction-it-helping-or-hurting-your-brain)
Technology and especially smartphones have made it easier than ever to chase quick fixes of satisfaction that are gone in an instant, leaving you with an emptiness that demands to be filled by by more of the same.
It's as if the epidemic that's going to decimate us all out has already arrived, but instead of attacking our bodies, it's wiping out time that would be far better spent on nearly anything else.
Xavier Toby is a writer and comedian
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