More than a decade after the first iPhone was released, it suddenly dawned on us that we could be addicted to our smartphones. We’d certainly developed quite the habit: Almost 50 percent of people say they couldn’t live without their phones, which we check every 12 minutes and touch an average of 2,600 times a day.

You don’t need to see the stats to know it’s hard to put down your device—the muscle memory of pull-to-refresh, the devil of the red notification on your shoulder, the rush that follows a flood of likes, the Instagram envy, the FOMO, scrolling endlessly by screenlight instead of falling asleep.

Researchers have been warning about the power of persuasive technology for years. But our sense of unease only went mainstream when we learned we were being manipulated. First, fake news and Russian meddling on social media demonstrated that tech platforms and the algorithms that power them could affect real-world behavior, like how you vote. Then a wave of Silicon Valley defectors revealed that social media apps were intentionally designed to trigger hits of dopamine that keep us coming back for more. And some well-publicized books exposed the toll of technology on our mental and physical health.

As suspicions swirled, a realization took shape. Maybe our death grip on our phones, which now occupy five hours of every day, isn’t a personal failing—lack of willpower, rudeness, narcissism. Maybe we’d been duped.

The financial incentive to keep us hooked is clear: Tech companies make money off of our attention, and shareholders measure success by the amount of time a company can keep us “engaged.” When we started focusing our anxieties on the effect that smartphones might have on children, the moral panic was complete.

Except that actual experts are still debating whether “addiction” is the right term for the relationship between humans and smartphones. Some say technology is not a drug like tobacco but rather a behavioral addiction, like gambling. Others say the addiction metaphor is unnecessarily alarmist and that the studies linking depression and smartphone usage only show correlation, not causation. But even major tech companies have acknowledged that their products can make us feel bad and promised to be more mindful of their users—perhaps the best data point yet that our smartphone attachment is cause for concern.

Smartphone and Internet Addiction The Definitive WIRED Guide

The History of Addictive Technology

Technophobia is at least as old as Socrates, who warned that the written word would weaken our memories. Similar fears about diminished intelligence, information overload, social isolation, increased laziness, or distraction followed the printing press, gramophone, telephone, radio, and TV. The arrival of the always-on Internet was no different. Cyberspace seemed designed to suck you in for hours on end—the Pavlovian conditioning triggered by AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail,” online gambling, online porn, chat rooms, instant messaging. Medical professionals started questioning whether “Internet addiction” should be a real diagnosis in the late 90’s, when America was still stuck on dialup.

But smartphones and social apps—those interactive data givers and takers always within reach—are different and more nimble beasts. Software adapts to the data we feed it, catering, perhaps, to our own individual vulnerabilities. The formula for influencing behavior adjusted accordingly.

B. J. Fogg, founder of Stanford’s Persuasion Lab, whose students went on to work for Facebook, Instagram, Uber, and Google, developed a psychological model that combined three factors to prompt a particular behavior: trigger, motivation, and ability. Take Facebook photos, for example: You get a push notification that you’ve been tagged in a photo (trigger), you want to make sure you look OK in the pic (motivation), and you can easily and immediately check the photo on your phone (ability).

A former student of Fogg’s, Nir Eyal, developed his own model. In his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Eyal lays out a four-part process: trigger, action, variable reward, and investment, arguing that negative emotions can be powerful triggers. Boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness cause a slight pain or irritation, prompting us to engage in mindless action to make the negative sensation go away. Positive emotions work too. On an app like Instagram, for instance, the trigger could be the desire to share good news.

The engine driving these feedback loops is the same mechanism that makes slot machines attractive: The uncertainty of what you’ll find when you respond to a notification or pull-to-refresh is what keeps you coming back for more. In his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter says the loop is powerful not just because of the occasional wins (like a fave), but because the experience of a recent loss (no faves) is deeply motivating.

There’s nothing inherently nefarious about the models. The same structure can be used to persuade people to make better choices, like the way FitBits turn fitness into a game or apps that nudge you to meditate. In that light, the power to change behavior doesn’t look so bad, but it still gets at the underlying question: Can persuasive technology override our free will? Fogg himself warned the Federal Trade Commission about potential political and social consequences of building “persuasion profiles,” a year before the iPhone was released. “We can now create machines that can change what people think and what people do, and the machines can do that autonomously,” he testified in 2006. “Whenever we go to a Web site and use an interactive system, it is likely they will be capturing what persuasion strategies work on us and will be using those when we use the service again.”