Smartphone addiction; the science behind it

Smartphone addiction; the science behind it - Lovefone, London

Have you ever felt addicted to using your phone? Welcome to the enormous club, my friend. A recent study of adult professionals showed that a full 70% used their phone within an hour of waking up every single day. That's higher than the percentage of adults who drink coffee.

One of the most noticeable changes of the last few decades isn't just the size and shape of our phones, but how social norms have evolved regarding etiquette when using them. In the late 1990's, when few people owned a phone that could leave the house, speaking at a restaurant on a cell phone (because having a loud conversation was really all you could do with them back then), or even having it out on the table, would be considered obviously rude.

This is certainly not the case any longer, as Instagram food pics are absolutely a thing—if you didn't post that brunch, did it really happen?—and there are features on nearly every form of social media that let you post your location, just to prove to the world you were really there.

There are many cases where using your phone is perfectly acceptable, and even—let's admit it—fun. Don't get me wrong: this is not another article on “why smartphones are bad.” They're not. But too much use can have a negative effect on our lives. It's polarising—and even hurtful—to meet with a friend in person, and watch her text other people the entire time. She's not trying to be rude. In fact, she probably doesn't even notice how much of her time and attention it's taking. Nevertheless, it still probably rubs you the wrong way. (Note: If you're unsure about which smartphone behaviours are okay today, check out our Smartphone Etiquette Guide—we've got you covered.)

Why did this change? Perhaps we've merely adapted to our growing tech addiction, now making certain allowances because everyone owns a phone and feels an acute need to use it, from tweens Snapchatting, to the working mom texting the babysitter, to Grandma just trying to keep up, stay in touch, and see photos of so-and-so's baby.

We are addicted

We're all guilty of getting sucked into our phones and letting time slip away. This is just the outward sneeze indicating our internal virus, so to speak; a contagious symptom that shows how prevalent cellphone addiction really is, and how deeply it's pervaded our society.

We are expected to be addicted. Friends and bosses expect us to be connected and available at all times. This cuts into what once was “free time:” time spent on personal hobbies, with family, or just being outside in nature taking a deep breath. We often accept a watered-down version of these things, while staring at a four-inch screen instead of the wide world around us. So why can't we stop?

This is how technology affects the brain: just like drugs, alcohol, or anything else with addictive properties, you keep going back because the substance triggers a burst of happy feelings. But you end up developing a tolerance over time, and you need more and more face-time with your phone to get your fix.

According to David Greenfield, PhD, psychologist and author of Virtual Addiction: Netheads, Cyber Freaks, and Those Who Love Them, various technology can actually be psychoactive, legitimately triggering happiness and pleasure in the reward center of your brain and causing a shift in your mood. Greenfield actually compares smartphones to slot machines, neurologically speaking, noting that “we're seeking that pleasurable hit” when we use both of them.

The technology hangover

But it's not all fun and games being connected all the time. The hangover aspect of our smartphone addicted culture is that it can seem almost irresponsible to put the phone down. Many employees feel the pressure to be available by phone around the clock, on weekends, and even on vacation. This is basically the opposite of the brain pleasure fix described above, and causes stress, anxiety, fatigue, and burnout, and can cause personal relationships as well as work quality to suffer.

So what do we do? Jenna Woginrich, writer for The Guardian, actually reverted back to a landline (a vintage, mustard yellow, rotary dialer, no less), saying the change was “as freeing as the first night of a vacation.” If opting out completely feels too extreme, we can often find a breath of fresh air in simply, but firmly, stepping away from the phone on a regular basis.

Unplugging is good for you

In Leslie Perlow's book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break The 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, she writes about something she calls “PTO” or Predictable Time Off. This is when you unplug, and clients, friends, and even your boss, must understand that during this time you will be unavailable by phone, email, or any other tiny little “ding” from your phone that crushes your soul just an eency-weency bit. This is your time to live.

A study Perlow conducted at a law firm in Boston found that even a small amount of PTO produced vastly improved amounts of team collaboration, efficiency, and overall effectiveness among employees. The participants also discovered more personal satisfaction with their work, and their balance of work and personal life. A significant percentage also reported being more excited to begin their workday in general.

PTO is a good starting point for everyone. Smartphones should only be used to enhance your life (not become it). Sometimes we need to remember to simply unplug so that we can go live it.

June 30, 2016
Rae Avery