Technology May Be Controlling Your Life—Here's How to Take it Back

A new study finds software is removing autonomy

  • A report says technology is taking away our ability to make decisions. 
  • Smartphones are a prime cause of technology dependence. 
  • Experts suggest taking periodic breaks from your devices.
Someone sitting on a sofa, using a laptop on a coffee table while also looking at a smartphone.

Moyo Studio / Getty Images

Even as technology becomes more useful, it may be taking over our lives. 

A new study finds users are outsourcing more decision-making and personal autonomy to software. Experts told the Pew Research Center that by 2035, smart systems would not be designed to allow humans to control most tech-aided decision-making easily. It's part of a growing wave of machines that help but also exert influence in ways we don't expect. 

"The constant viewing of memes, tag lines, and clips creates a situation where our outsourcing of decision-making is not conscious," Melissa Huey, a professor of behavioral sciences at the New York Institute of Technology, who has researched the psychological impact of smartphones and technology told Lifewire in an email interview. "Because of the subliminal messaging that comes through our technology, it is hard to know if your opinions are real and genuine or a product of what comes across our devices constantly."

Tech Influencers

The Pew study surveyed experts who agree that tech tools will increasingly become essential to human decision-making. Paul Jones, emeritus professor of information science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told the researcher that the effects of tech could be subtle.  

Someone sitting on the floor with a cozy blanket and a laptop open in front of them, smiling as they use their phone.

Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

"Compare searching with Google to searching CD-ROM databases in the 1990s," Jones said in the report's summary. "Yes, humans can override search defaults, but all evidence shows they don't, and for the most part, they won't."

Smartphones might be a significant part of the reason technology is controlling users. The ubiquitous devices have the same chemical reaction in the brain as drugs and alcohol, Huey said. 

"Getting 'likes' and notifications from your phone release dopamine, which makes us feel good, and in turn, we want to repeat these feel-good behaviors," Huey added. "We create an addictive and endless cycle, where we're constantly looking at our phones to feel better. However, when we don't get likes or notifications, we feel depressed and lonely, which creates an adverse effect." 

Many people have anxiety when not near their phones, Huey noted. Nomophobia—the fear of being without one's phone—has proven to cause high levels of anxiety and depression. 

"If you feel anxious when you're not around your phone, can't go anywhere without it, and cannot focus when out with friends or in the middle of other life activities, these are all signs you're using your phone too much," Huey added.

We create an addictive and endless cycle, where we're constantly looking at our phones to feel better.

But tech can also control our lives in positive ways, Aura De Los Santos, a clinical psychologist, pointed out in an email interview. "We use technology to simplify processes such as making payments over the internet and not having to stand in long lines at banks, do household purchases, and have them arrive at the door," she added. "Also, how we can talk while driving and automate processes in our homes that give us comfort."

Taking Back Control

If you feel like technology is controlling your life, experts say there are steps you can take to turn things around. 

One obvious step is to put your smartphone away for set periods, Huey said. Leaving your phone outside of your bedroom has been found to improve your sleep significantly. 

"Putting your phone away when out with family and friends can improve your overall experience and, in turn, your relationships. Staying mindful in the moment is crucial. When you have your phone with you, turning notifications off or using apps restricting your usage can also help create limits."

Simply having too much technology at your fingertips can be a problem, De Los Santos said. "Relying 100 percent on technology can interfere with other areas where we need to use critical thinking and creativity, and being aware of this helps us to use it appropriately," she added.

One way to keep a healthy distance from tech tools is to set times without digital aids. 

"There are spaces where you can be without technology, which helps to create a balance and avoid addiction to these," De Los Santos said. "Going to exercise without your cell phone, and going shopping without having to order food virtually, are some small actions, but they can give many results."

Was this page helpful?