When the topic of addiction arises, we often think of drugs, sex, alcohol or gambling. What we neglect to see, however, is our own dependence on everyday things. Anderson Cooper did an incredibly interesting segment on 60 Minutes where he discussed how major companies are not creating programs for people, but instead programming people. Watching this made me think about how much time I spend on my phone. I realized that we are programm-able; the developers of major software companies in Silicon Valley have literally conditioned us to constantly use our phones…it is like an addiction for some of us! Using our phones gives us satisfaction, but repeatedly using our phones makes us need them more. Although this may seem less serious than other addictions, it shares many commonalities with more severe addictions, and deserves some attention and self-reflection.
Defined simply, addiction is the consistent repeated use of a substance or an activity, despite the harm it has on self or others. Addiction is often accompanied by cravings–a recurring need to be filled–withdrawals, and an increased need of the substance, thing, or activity. Have you ever thought about your smartphone usage in this light? Former Google product manager, Tristan Harris, compares our smartphones to slot machines; every time we pick it up, we are wondering, what did I get? And I can relate to this! I will admit that I feel different when I have a well-liked photo versus one with less likes. Getting likes, messages, texts, or comments on posts is powerful reinforcement to stay on our phones. for example, I recently learned Snapchat has a feature called a “streak” that builds as you consistently send messages; if you are unable to consistently send snaps, your “streak” goes down. If you have ever felt panicked by a lack of access to your phone, you may want to reflect on whether or not you are addicted to your smartphone. Although they are incredibly useful, and can be used for beneficial purposes, smartphones can be addictive if we can develop an unhealthy reliance on them.
This addiction is literally caused by a chemicals in our bodies. When we hear our phone going off, we become anxious. A hormone called cortisol is produced (best known for its involvement in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response), and the only antidote is to check the phone. Once we do so, the molecule dopamine is released–which aids in the creation of desire and pleasure. This cycle will repeat itself over and over again. To demonstrate this in the 60 Minutes segment, a researcher applies electrodes to Cooper to track his heart rate and perspiration while he was distracted by the computer. Unbeknownst to Cooper, another researcher was sending text messages to his phone–which was just out of his reach. Every time his phone went off with a bing!, the line measuring Anderson’s anxiety peaked on the tracking device. This informal experiment mimicked what other formal experiments have shown: there is an identifiable chemical change that takes place in our brain which fuels our need to check our phones. Fact: the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less, and 50% of the time there is no alert or notification triggering our need to do so! Our need to check our phones is impulsive–it is coming from the brain–and the only instantaneous cure is more phone. Recognizing our dependence on our phones and then setting parameters for our smartphone intake is a more long-lasting solution.
Although some may say this “addiction” is not problematic, from my point of view it IS for the following two reasons: 1) even being hooked to a smartphone for innocent reasons can easily lead to being hooked to a smartphone for very serious reasons (read: pornography, gambling, chatrooms, online shopping addiction); and 2) the more time we are staring at our screens means less time we are interacting with and having meaningful relationships with those around us (read: a spouse, children, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.) and ourselves!
Of course there are many positive ways to use our smartphones. I am not suggesting we all revert back to the flip-phone or abandon our cell phones altogether. What I am simply suggesting is that we recognize when we are potentially feeding an addiction by being glued to our phones; admit that you are not being present in an important conversation or relationship because the cyber-world has you hooked. Set limits and boundaries about when you will be on your phone, for how long, and what you will do with that time. I encourage you to delete certain addictive or time-consuming apps off your phone. You know what works for you. Set healthy limits and stick to them.
Let us put the phones down and tune into the important people and things in our lives. If you need assistance formulating a plan to break up with your phone, as always, my door is wide open. Contact me today to set up your first session.
- Missouri Education Watchdog: “60 Minutes: Why can’t we put down our smartphones? Brain-hacking”
- Anderson Cooper: “Brain Hacking”
- CBS: “Why Can’t We Put Down Our Smartphones?”