Smartphone Addiction on the Brain
By Jillian Broaddus and Chuck Cusumano
How many times per day would you say you look at your phone?
Maybe twice per waking hour, maximum, which would put you at approximately thirty?
Believe it or not, the number is probably astronomically higher. Research findings vary: Time reports the average person looks at his or her phone 46 times daily, Asurion estimates it to be closer to 96 times on average (once every ten minutes!), and yet another 2022 report shows that Americans check nearly 350 times per day! Furthermore, Inc suggests we tap, swipe, or click on our phones 2,617 times per day, amounting to more than three hours staring into a little blue void.
No matter which figure is most accurate, the bottom line remains: we’re addicted to our smartphones.
But, one question lingers: Why? Are we truly dependent upon having the Internet at our fingertips at all waking moments? Our ancestors – up until just a decade or so ago – easily survived without the luxury, so this can’t be the ultimate answer. Have our careers become so demanding – amplified by the remote work revolution – that foregoing a moment away could cost us opportunity? This is certainly true in many jobs, but suffice it to say most people wouldn’t agree they’re addicted to their smartphones out of obligation to be a diligent employee.
Rather, we believe the answer lies in the way smartphone notifications were created: in order to addict us! Essentially, they’re addictive by design.
Just like receiving a “like” on social media or feeling a rush when pulling the handle of a slot machine, a phone notification can activate the reward center of our brain, which triggers a dopamine response. And, as with all things that trigger a dopamine response – from the aforementioned gambling hobby to enjoying a slice of chocolate cake – the chemicals can create a reward cycle – aka, an addiction.
However, the positive side of brain reactions alone doesn’t tell the whole story. According to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD from Columbia University, a phone notification can quite literally “send our brain into overdrive, triggering anxiety and stress, and at the very least, hyper-vigilance, which is meant to protect ourselves from predators, not the phone.”
If you’ve wondered why you can’t focus on the task at hand – whether it be work, driving, or following the plot of your favorite TV show – when you’re anticipating an incoming message – particularly a potentially stressful one regarding work, drama, or relationship woes – Dr. Hafeez explains why: our prefrontal cortex is completely shut off. This cortex regulates higher-level cognitive functions, and is deactivated in order for the brain to send emergency signals to the body.
However, an inability to focus isn’t the only adverse side effect of obsessive phone use; it’s also linked to short-term memory deficiencies, negatively-impacted problem solving abilities, sleep problems, lower quality conversations, and increasing rates of depression and obesity.
If any other vice in our world was so tightly associated with such an array of maladies, we’d probably outlaw it. However, the smartphone addiction just continues to exacerbate!
So, if you feel like you’re a victim to the addiction, you’re not alone – and it may not even be your fault! Our brains are wired to become addicted to such notifications, and it can take a resoluteness to break the habit cycle… or a routine choice to abide by some of the following rules:
Track your Usage: Sometimes, a dose of reality is the best medicine. Track your screentime through an app such as OffScreen, and see how much of your time is spent on your three-inch screen. Then, make a plan to track progress!
Get Outside (without your phone!): Try incorporating a phone-less exercise in your daily routine. Go for a walk, run, or hike without your phone in hand. Use the time to clear your mind!
Silence Notifications: Put on “Do Not Disturb” when focusing on something (or someone) important – a meeting, a family dinner, or any 1:1 conversation. Your comrades will thank you.
Find an Old-School Alarm Clock: By this, we mean to place your phone away from your bedside. Ensure you aren’t bombarded by notifications from the time you open your eyes to the minute you shut them by adjusting your morning and nighttime routines away from relying on your phone.
Of course, the benefits of smartphones in our world are obvious and manifold. We don’t discount the advantages of having the answer to (almost) anything at our fingertips, or the ability to stay connected to loved ones near and far in a mere instant. However, if your smartphone addiction is becoming problematic in your daily life, we hope this helps! If you need further help, we’re always here at firstname.lastname@example.org!