Photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash   

Some days it feels like our devices have cast some sort of spell over us. Everywhere we look people are constantly scrolling their phones, drawn like moths to the brilliant light of their screens. 

It might be your spouse surfing social media, or your kids playing their favourite game. The effect is even more unsettling in a restaurant full of strangers, dozens of people entranced by their screens and oblivious to anything around them. 

The strangest alchemy, though, might be that sensation you feel yourself—annoyed whenever you get pulled down the rabbit hole but somehow unable to quit.

But a peek behind the curtain reveals there’s only one kind of magic happening here: the phenomenal success of an industry built on capturing, and keeping, our attention. Unless we understand what we’re up against, how can we expect anyone to break the spell?

Now, this isn’t a rant against technology or even social media. Not at all. Technology is an incredible boon to humanity. It enables us to see and talk to our doctors through virtual visits in a pandemic. It connects people around the globe in countless ways. The list of benefits is endless.

But there’s an old saying that applies to this new technology: the dark side of helping is control. And when it comes to keeping us glued to our screens, that control is engineered to a degree that few of us understand.

Take the infinite scroll, for example. It was first designed to help you navigate web pages. Instead of having to click to the next page of an article, the infinite scroll let you see the whole article on the same page with the smooth swipe of a finger.

Helpful, right? Sure, until software companies realized how rich they could get by manipulating your brain to keep you scrolling for hours. The explanation in this fascinating video comes in part from Aza Raskin, who created the feature.

And if you’re still wondering why your teenager can’t pull themselves away from their screen, it helps to understand that they’ve been hooked by something called ‘random intermittent reward.’ It’s a carefully designed strategy that provides digital rewards just often enough to keep you seeking more. 

Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman explains it well in this short video, especially when he likens our screen fixation to an animal obsessively digging in the corner for a bone. “We’d think that animal is sick,” Huberman says. “You’d think, ‘That’s really sad.’ That’s us.”

It’s an image to keep in mind next time you’re bewitched by your screen, scrolling for hours on end. There’s no magic keeping you there. Instead, it’s a very lucrative economy built on getting and keeping your attention. Until you know some of the tricks up their sleeve, you can’t even begin to break the spell.