Is Smartphone Addiction a Problem? Am I So Addicted?

Am I addicted to my phone? Yes. The end. No, but seriously, yes we all are. But, our clinical research on phone addiction and the claims behind it are still in their nascent stages. For instance, the claim that phones are “rewiring our brains” into being addicted to instant gratification has yet to be substantiated. Meaning, the studies suffer […]

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Am I addicted to my phone?


The end.

No, but seriously, yes we all are. But, our clinical research on phone addiction and the claims behind it are still in their nascent stages. For instance, the claim that phones are “rewiring our brains” into being addicted to instant gratification has yet to be substantiated. Meaning, the studies suffer from a lack of vertical syllogistic evidence. However, that’s not to say that phone usage does nothing to us. Our phones distract us. Are you familiar with the story of Odysseus and the Sirens?  According to Sparknotes, “The Sirens’ song is so seductive that Odysseus begs to be released from his fetters, but his faithful men only bind him tighter.” Get the picture? Life is our odyssey, we are Odysseus, and, yep, you guessed it—our phones are the sirens, beckoning us to an untimely death. Endogenous, or internal, distracts occur when we, the smartphone proprietor’s (although, these days, I’m pretty sure the phone owns us) thoughts lightly drift toward a smartphone-related activity. This then sets into motion an otherwise unsolicited drive to use the phone.

I.e. Me working, when suddenly: I wonder how Carole is doing today? My eyes dart to my phone. The black sheen scintillates from my desk’s fluorescent lamp and I reach to unlock it. Next thing I know I am 40 minutes deep into a video compilation of cats attempting to extricate bologna from their faces.

Obsessive Phone Checking

Exogenous, or external, interruptions occur when we are prompted to use our smartphones by some environmental cue. In our case with the sirens, our phones are always calling. That’s to say that they are always attractive, but the difference between endogenous and exogenous is that the former is us internally telling ourselves that we need to use our phone and the latter is us being externally prompted by a notification or even the mere sight of another mobile device. Whipping out your mobile phone is the new yawn of this generation. You can even be triggered by someone mentioning a cell phone. This is kinda like Alexa, but instead of a smart speaker activation, it is you that goes boop-boop. These exogenous activation triggers can even go as far as hearing an activity that can be done on your phone (e.g. email, googling, texting, etc).

Digital Addiction and Performance

Even if we turn to our smartphones for one purpose (e.g. answering a push-notification), once our unchastened selves give it the time of day, we engage in a race to the bottom. We jump from activity to the next, on a domino chain of subsequent tasks that were unrelated to our initial purpose. The real harm, however, lies in the period of disruption and the deleterious effects thereafter.

Studies exploring these ‘within-phone’ interruptions have found that task completion in one app can be delayed by up to 400% by an unintended interruption from another app (Leiva et al., 2012).

There is research that shows the direct impact that interruptions (in our case, phone interruptions) have on the performance of any given task. This is then complemented by research on “resumption errors,” which is the given errors that arise from starting a task then switching to another, and finally returning to the original task…who hasn’t done this? If you get off-task longer than 15 seconds, resumption errors skyrocketWhat’s more, and quite frankly predictable based off of personal experience is that smartphone usage disruptions frequently last longer than 15 seconds. Surprise, surprise. This draws the conclusion that distractions — namely, smartphones — can disrupt workflow and cause errors. Ultimately, smartphones mess up our ability to achieve absolute absorption in an activity.

Social Media Likes and Self Esteem

In 2016 there was a study that used human neuroimaging to check out reward processing linked to phone use. In essence, the brains scan showed how our brain activated when we used our mobile devices. Unsurprisingly, our reward was highest when we used social media. One of the findings was as follows:

Sherman et al. (2016) found that receiving many “Likes” on one’s social media photographs is related to increased activation in the brain’s reward circuitry, including areas in the dorsal and ventral striatum and ventral tegmental area.

So, there you have it. Factually, you get high off of “likes” (or, at the very least, it feels good for the most part). Herein lies the problem of not knowing how to connect the dots. It is a thin line that scientists are having trouble crossing. We are able to tell empirically that phone usage, and, moreover, social media is giving us pleasure, but we don’t know the ultimate drawbacks from this high. If you remember, this image from an early iteration of cough syrup, you could begin to understand that just because something is issued as a publically sold good, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good for you.

Even though scientific research cannot come to a univocal consensus on “tech addiction,” there have been many voices lambasting the addictiveness of the tech in our hands–tech that was made by these whistleblowers. The irony is not lost on the public, however, that many of these addictive master makers are now wildly wealthy from the fruit of their labor. This perhaps is a reason why people are finding their claims to be a hard pill to swallow. The Catch 22 here is who else would be able to tell us about these products? The poor engineers are trying to get rich and obviously wouldn’t jeopardize their meal ticket. Yet, it is once they’ve eaten their fill that their words are almost tinged with sanctimonious and portending won’t. Either way, see quotes below:

October 2017

Justin Rosenstein, the engineer behind the Facebook “like” button, who lamented to the Guardian about the rise of the “attention economy,” and how those ubiquitous thumbs-up icons produce “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.”

November 2017

Former Facebook president Sean Parker weighed in, admitting that the site was built on the simple question of, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?

December 2017

Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, gave a talk recently at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and he pulled no punches: “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” Palihapitiya said, as cited by the Verge.

Despite the overwhelming and vehement opposition, “addictive tech” has failed to be classified as a “behavioral addiction.” According to the American Psychology Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – 5), gambling is the only non-substance ingesting addictive that is recognized. Funny how much swiping down on your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feed can resemble someone pulling on a slot machine lever. Just cracking away, hoping for a jackpot. Just one more time, I promise, and I’ll stop.

A decade’s past and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have been unfettered in their march on our attention frontiers. They march to the endless drum of the venture capitalist, whose main stipulation is user growth and engagement. Through mastering behavioral design and gamification (the “art” of making an activity as much fun as a video game), they have created habitual draws to their products with one question in mind: how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?

However, parents still believe they can guide their children best. Facebook did a survey that yielded the following results:

  • 64% of parents trust themselves the most to guide their child’s technology use.
  • 77% of parents say they are the most appropriate to determine how much time their child spends using online technologies.
  • 77% of parents say they are the most appropriate to decide the right age for their child to use online digital technologies.

And yet, there were the multibillion-dollar Apple shareholders that decried the company’s addictive tech. The Jana partners’ open letter to the tech behemoth doled out a swath of researched backed insights that included digitally distracted students, suicidal tech teens, isolated grade-schoolers, and parental concern surrounding the deleterious effects of social media. According to an APA survey, 94% of parents have moved to manage their children’s tech use, but the letter states that “it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.” The irony here is not that parents do not have the tools to fight the good fight; it is more than they do not have the right tools. Essentially, there are parental control functions on smartphones that give an all-or-nothing solution, which is no solution at all. Binary products are unreflective of the human experience and ultimately work for too few to warrant support or long-term usage.

With this new information that’s come to light, will there be an increase in the number of parents comfortable teaching their kids about internet addiction? The parents today did not grow up with the tech of today. Their millennial progeny lived through Moore’s law. Simply put, processing speeds, or overall processing power for computers (including the little ones we keep in our pockets) double every two years. Now, even though parents may have had a cell phone or a computer, is that desktop box that shared a phone line really tantamount to the supercomputer lazily glowing in their child’s face?

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