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Hanging Up

Using Technology to Beat Smart Phone Addiction

I have two amazing children, who will be teenagers before I can blink. As I watch them interact with the digital world around them, I sometimes marvel in a way that my parents must have when I first learned how to program a Commodore Vic 20 at the age of eight.

My kids are natives of an always-on digital jungle, with access to networked tablets, computers and smart speakers in almost every room of our house. They have never known a time before smart mobile devices, and naturally navigate this ecosystem. However, like many parents who work in the technology industry, I’ve never been overly comfortable with giving my munchkins unlimited technology access, and have tried to set boundaries to limit screen time.

Yet it wasn’t until I met the co-founders of Pocket Points, the high-tech company focused on motivating young people to put down their phones, that I began to really understand the impact of technology addiction, especially on developing brains.

Think about the last time you saw the driver next to you stare into their smartphone while hurtling down the highway in a two-ton missile on wheels, or watched two friends repeatedly sneak peeks at their phones while chatting with one another face-to-face. Most of us are guilty of at least one transgression, with some percentage tragically becoming a statistic. Cell phones are involved in over 1.6 million accidents each year, with over 3,000 teens killed while texting and driving. And that habit of checking your phone while speaking face-to-face with a friend is now so common that it has a name: phubbing (i.e. phone snubbing).

It’s no wonder that over 95% of the 200 teachers interviewed in a recent Pocket Points study say that cell phone use is their single biggest challenge in the classroom. And there’s the problem: If students are ignoring their own friends in favor of their phones, how are teachers supposed to compete?

The siren call of anticipation of that next flirty text or Instagram “like” can be addictive to a young, developing brain. And while I used to joke about attachment to one’s smart phone as a bad habit of an undisciplined mind, we see a growing body of evidence confirming an actual physiological addiction. Some experts compare this to a gambling addiction, where smart phone stimuli replaces the slot machine. Both provide a random chance of new and exciting information that feeds our brains’ reward circuits.

The current definition of addiction reflects our over-stimulated society:obsessively returning to an experience that triggers the brain’s reward, motivation, memory, pleasure, movement and related circuitry, despite adverse consequences. There is an interesting article in Scientific American that describes this process in more colorful terms:

“When we engage in an activity that keeps us alive or helps us pass on our genes, neurons in the reward system squirt out a chemical messenger called dopamine, giving us a little wave of satisfaction and encouraging us to make a habit of enjoying hearty meals and romps in the sack. When stimulated by amphetamine, cocaine or other addictive drugs, the reward system disperses up to 10 times more dopamine than usual.”

In effect, we’re hard-wired to constantly search for that soaring high. Our brains react with that same squirt of dopamine, whether that experience was triggered by heroin, a slot machine promising to let loose a big payday, or checking Instagram while driving, with the anticipation of receiving just one more “like”. In scientific terms, “All addictions follow the same neurobiological processes,” according to Dr. David Greenfield, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

What makes tech addiction in teens especially diabolical is that it also increases depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity. A 2017 South Korean study found that teens diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction showed a visible physiological imbalance in their brain chemistry, as well as a quantifiable reduction in their emotional well-being.

The trick to changing behavior is to understand what drives us. Motivation is a funny thing, where sometimes we need the carrot, and sometimes the stick. With addiction, however, the stick doesn’t always work. Otherwise, the fear of a traffic ticket or possibly death would keep drivers’ eyes on the road, and risk of earning a poor grade keep students focused on their teacher.

On the other hand, carrots (in various forms) can be highly effective in changing or reinforcing certain behaviors. Marriott hotels, for example, can motivate a traveler to choose their properties over lower-cost competitors, by offering valuable loyalty-based incentives and points that can be used to buy free rooms and experiences. Similarly, the feeling that washes over us when we give to charity might also motivate us to give more in the future. Both experiences trigger a healthy (limited) dopamine rush, and reinforce behavior.

Pocket Points earned my attention with a single data point. To date, their app has kept college students off of their phones for over 2 billion minutes. That’s with a “B”. The service is designed to battle cell phone addiction by providing students with free restaurant meals and retail products (and, as of December 2018, teacher-designed incentives) if they stay off of their phones for extended periods of time. As the phone remains untouched, its owner earns points that are later used to buy these prizes.

Survey of U.S. students currently using Pocket Points

And it seems to be working. 84.9% of over 11,000 students responded positively to a survey about impact on mental health and well-being, sharing that they were able to better focus on academics during the school day, boosted by the motivational power of positive incentives. I’m hopeful that we will soon see similar results behind the wheel.

This is why I was excited to join the company as an adviser to its passionate young founders.

Multiple studies have demonstrated cognitive-behavior therapy as an effective treatment for smart phone addiction, by giving addicts training and tools to resist unwanted thoughts and habits. Pocket Points was initially founded to give college students an added tool, by replacing the high of addictive rapid-fire dopamine bursts with more valuable tangible rewards that also require delayed gratification. By empowering high school teachers to provide their own incentives motivating students to keep their phone in their backpack, we’re doubling-down on our mission to help save lives, money and report cards.

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