The Digital Drug: Keynote Speech at South Dakota State University

University Keynote Speaker Tech Expert Ariel Coro

Personal technology may be taking a turn for the worse. For many years, I’ve been a loud cheerleader for technology. I’ve experienced its benefits firsthand, after all, my livelihood has and is intertwined with tech every step of the way. But, what has changed? This was the central theme to my Hispanic Heritage Keynote Speech this week at South Dakota State University.

I have to say that the organizing team led by Dr. Florencio Aranda at the University did an amazing job before and during the speech to make sure the students got a different perspective about Smartphone Addiction, the impact on their lives and in the Latinx community. South Dakota State University has a beautiful campus and everyone was most welcoming.

Keynote Room at the Student Union Building along with the flyer for the Hispanic Heritage Event at South Dakota State University

The impact of smartphones

When smartphones first launched, the whole world was in awe with all the vast possibilities. It’s easy to take for granted all the cool things we can accomplish from our phones today that weren’t possible a mere 10 years ago. We can bank, get educated, plan travel, watch movies, videoconference, get directions, buy stuff, hire people, control our vehicles and our smart homes, play games and connect with others through social media, to name a few among what seems to be an infinite number of possibilities. What is the problem then?

For phones or should we call them, personal portable computers, the changes as of late have been boringly incremental and not as shiny and new as when they first came out. Yes, each passing year you get a better processor, more memory and a better camera but that’s not the point. What’s really being upgraded is the ability of these devices to capture our time and attention.

Smartphones as enablers of addictive behavior

Smartphones are the ultimate delivery mechanism for the ultimate digital drug. What are these drugs you wonder? Social media and other applications that are designed to exploit the way your brain works and turn us into addicts. Does it sound too obvious? Is addiction to these apps something that happens only to other people? Think again.

In 2017, Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook said it himself. He mentioned that the thought process that went into creating apps such as Facebook, Instagram and others is about how to monopolize your time and conscious attention as much as possible. How do they do this? By literally hacking how your brain secretes dopamine every time you get a notification, a like, a heart, a comment, you get the point. He called it a “social-validation feedback loop”. What’s so interesting is that he portrays himself and other famous founders as hackers exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The kind of vulnerability that’s creating a new generation of teenage addicts and adults that check their phone incessantly to get their small but frequent, dopamine hit.  The scary part is that he admits that he and other founders knew about this but did it anyway. Whaaat? Exactly… You are being manipulated into spending more and more of your limited available time using these platforms.

Brain chemistry 101

What is dopamine anyways and why is it important to this conversation?

When it comes to feeling pleasure, dopamine is the delivery vehicle for the brain. It’s a neurotransmitter that gets released when you do something like eating, teaching and motivating your brain to do this again. The interesting thing is that dopamine is released even in anticipation of the pleasurable behavior and as living creatures controlled in part by chemical reactions, we seek it.

A quick addiction check

Barring extreme behaviors, how do you know if you are addicted to these technologies? I did a quick thought experiment with the attendees at my Hispanic Heritage tech speech in South Dakota State University this week. I asked them to unlock their phones and pass them to another person in the room. As I finished saying this, students and faculty looked at me with big eyes and as they extended their hands to hand over their phones to another person, you could see the signs of anxiety and stress building up. We are now so attached to these things that we can’t put them down, they are consuming more and more of our available time and most importantly, the need to get that dopamine hit in the form of notifications, comments, and likes, is driving some people to unknowingly put themselves and others at risk.

Driving while distracted related deaths have surpassed drunk driving-related deaths. Let that sink in. We are so drawn to these phones and the fix they provide that we are literally putting our lives and the lives of others at risk.  

What can you do to free yourself from this digital leash? Here are a few tips:

  • First, you need to understand that you are being manipulated and take control. It’s not easy at first, but you’ll appreciate it when you start getting some of your life back.
  • Start using apps such as Screentime and Moment to track your usage and see how much time you are actually spending. As a rule of thumb, the number is always higher than what you think. Identify the apps that are sucking you in and start taking steps to control the time spent on them. If everything else fails, delete the app and use the web version.
  • Take the phone out of your bedroom at night. Don’t use it with the excuse that it is your alarm clock. Spend $20 bucks and buy a clock radio or an old-fashioned alarm clock. Not only are you not going to be exposed to the blue light that these devices emit from their screens that mess with your sleep cycle, but you won’t wake up at night tempted to see what’s going on in the social world.

Facebook last quarter was in the top 5 companies by market capitalization in the S&P only surpassed by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.  Zuckerberg famously said that Facebook will always be free. The reality is that when you use the “free product” the real product is you. Your preferences, interests, and behaviors are mined by these companies for their profit. The strategy is working. It’s up to you to take control back and realize that your time and mental health are not free for the taking.

Scroll to Top