Elgan: Uh, oh. Here comes iPad addiction!

A pandemic is spreading, and the first step is to admit we have a problem

My son was watching TV on my iPad the other day (slumped on the couch with big headphones on) when it occurred to me: Is the iPad addictive?

He was sitting in front of our big-screen, HDTV, which was turned off. His big-screen laptop was nearby -- also turned off. So, why was he watching on the iPad?

NBC TV tech reporter Mike Wendland might have the answer when he said of the iPad: "This thing is more addicting than a slot machine."

"Mad Money" TV personality Jim Cramer told his audience that Apple stock was a good investment because the "iPad is addictive as Oxycontin."

Two days before the iPad shipped, an episode of the TV series "Modern Family" ended with one of the characters gazing at his iPad and whispering, "I love you."

Something is going on here, and it's not natural.

Is iPad the new 'Crackberry'?

Other technology products are addictive, too. BlackBerry devices have been called "Crackberries" for years, and there are rehab sites. Parents in China, South Korea and even the U.S. send their kids to Internet or gaming addiction camps or rehab. Facebook and social networking have been labeled as addictive activities by some psychologists.

The closest thing to the iPad is, of course, the iPhone. Can people become hooked on the iPhone?

A new Stanford University survey found that 44% of students claim iPhone addiction. Only 6% of iPhone users said they had no addiction to the device at all.

The survey also found that iPhone addiction was impacting relationships. Students reported in some cases that friends and family felt abandoned or neglected because of the over-attention paid to iPhones.

The anthropology professor who managed the survey, Tanya Luhrmann, told the San Jose Mercury News newspaper that, "one of the most striking things we saw in the interviews was just how identified people were with their iPhone."

"It was not so much with the object itself, but it had so much personal information that it became a kind of extension of the mind and a means to have a social life. It just kind of captured part of their identity," Luhrmann told the newspaper.

Almost one-quarter of students surveyed said they considered the iPhone an extension of their body or brain.

If the iPhone is that addictive, how strung out are people going to be on the iPad?

What makes technology addictive?

I believe technology products and services can provide seven "drugs" that engender compulsive use:

Instant gratification. When any product gives us what we're looking for instantly, we tend to crave it more than things we have to wait for. Fast food is more addictive than slow food, for example. Instant gratification puts the "crack" in "Crackberry." You see the addicts in on airplanes. The second wheels touch tarmacs, the gadget crackheads whip out their phones and are typing away immediately. It's not just communication, but real-time communication with an instant-on device that makes it so compelling.

Social interaction. Media that connect us to friends, family and colleagues can become addictive compulsions. Facebook is the best example. But Twitter, FriendFeed, Buzz and other social sites can also be addictive. Humans are hard-wired for social interaction. Social networking services jack directly into that wiring.

Response to input. Video games are one of the most addictive micro-processor based activities. What is it about games that draw us to them? I think it's the feeling of power that comes from commanding a sensory-blasting response from the game. First, the game creates a world that we "buy into" to a certain extent; we accept it as a kind of alternative reality. Then we gain some skills required to survive or succeed or interact with that reality. It's like real life, but with massive control and new abilities and freedoms. It's not the game we're addicted to, but the rush of adrenalin and endorphins that comes from experiencing power, control and directing the sensory stimulation.

Serendipity. Did you ever wonder why people channel surf compulsively? We don't want to know what's on, but what else is on. We're driven by the possibility of undiscovered gratification. When we have 500 channels, settling on any one of them can produce a gentle anxiety. There might be something crazy, scintillating, scandalous, fascinating, historic or engaging on some other channel. People fight over the remote because they feel a need to control the hunt. We're addicted to TV and channel surfing because, in part, we crave the rush that accompanies accidental discovery.

Window to the world. Related to serendipity is the uncomfortable feeling that something is going on somewhere. What am I missing? Is there breaking news? Has another earthquake hit? Did another celebrity die? The Internet is the ultimate "window to the world" drug. We use Twitter, news sites, Digg, Facebook and other sites to check in compulsively to make sure we don't miss what's happening.

Identity. People (especially teenagers and other young people) find identity in the products they buy. Cell phones are a major source of identity, as are clothes, cars, jewelry and other products. Once an identify-conferring object is acquired, it feels necessary -- like something we need. If you don't believe this, try telling teenager what clothes to wear. Try convincing a Mustang owner to buy a Prius. In addition to superficial image identity, people come to see electronics (as discovered in the Stanford study) as an extension of their bodies and minds. Stored data becomes prosthetic memory. The ability to conjure up answers anytime, anywhere evolves from a novelty to a need. Take it away, and people feel its absence as a phantom limb. Some gadgets become part of who we are.

Escapism. Now that we're surrounded by Internet-connected computers and cell phones, we know that distraction is always a click away. The more we indulge the impulse to amuse ourselves with some distraction, the more addictive distractions become. The second some task becomes even slightly boring, people compulsively switch to break.com to watch the latest face-plant video. Escapism is an addiction.

Why iPad is the most addictive gadget yet

So here's the problem. While some tech products and services have one or two addictive drug-like elements, the iPad has them all. iPad users are speed-balling seven addictive qualities at once.

True instant-on, instant-off and fast overall performance means instant gratification. The iPad offers social interaction via Facebook, Twitter and all the other social sites. The multi-touch user interface offers video-game like response to input, which BoingBoing.net co-editor Xeni Jardin described as "sensual," "tactile," and "a greater leap into a new user experience than the sum of its parts suggests."

Web surfing and the app store give us the thrill of serendipity. It's a window to the world. It's a high-status source of personal identity that becomes part of who we are. And it's an escapism machine par excellence.

In addition to the presence of addictive qualities, the iPad lacks annoying qualities. It's silent. Unlike a PC or laptop, you're not irritated by a constant whirring fan. It's pretty to look at, without the clunky, industrial ugliness of a desktop PC. It's portable. It's refined. And the piece de resistance, the App Store, is being filled as we speak by thousands of applications that are themselves highly addictive, especially games (yeah, I'm talking about YOU, "Plants vs Zombies"!).

The iPad has been out just one week. Just wait. After months of use, the device will prove habit forming and turn millions of users into defenseless junkies who can't function without an iPad in their face.

Which raises questions. Should the Apple iPad come with a warning label? Should psychologists be studying its effects on people? Is the iPad dangerous? Should we keep it away from kids?

That may be going too far. At the very least, "screen addiction" is a very real problem. And the iPad certainly doesn't help. But in a worst-case scenario, iPads will usher in a new epidemic of gadget dependency.

Are you hopped up on the iPad? Share your comments below. It may be the second step to recovery.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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