ARE PHONES THE NEW SMOKING? THE REAL SCIENCE BEHIND OUR DIGITAL ADDICTIONS

READ TIME: 4:35


“Human beings have a deep, primitive desire to know everything that’s going on around them” - Nicholas Carr, 2010

We’ve all been there. Staring blankly at the forehead of someone who's swiping emails in the middle of dinner. Some of us having even begged, a few tears in our eyes, for these loved ones to, please, put it away. Please, pay attention. Love us. Hear us. Connect. But most of us have also been on the other side. Fork in hand, phone in the other. Clueless to the unspoken signals we’re giving off.

Here at Hush, we can nerd out over the science bits of digital addictions. So if that’s not your thing, feel free to read instead about 9 Tools Every Tech User Should Have or The Best Kept Secret of the Costa Rican Rain Forest. But if a little neuroscience tickles your fancy, welcome to our nerd dungeon. Did you know the average adult checks their phones every six and a half minutes? And almost 50% of British adults admit to feeling hooked on their phones? We even feel our phones vibrating when they’re not. 

All that said, most people acknowledge that stepping away from the devices now and then is healthy and necessary. So why can’t we just. put. them. down? Here are a few reasons our brains may not be prepared for all the tech we throw their way.

 

A LITTLE THING CALLED THE DOPAMINE LOOP

When we get a message from one of our many devices, we receive a little hit of dopamine. Now you’ve probably heard of dopamine. Most know it as a hormone released in the brain that makes us feel gooey pleasure. But new studies show dopamine isn’t actually the pleasure hormone. Instead, it causes a “seeking behavior.” It makes us crave a little brain treat and and act on those cravings.

And the thing giving us that pleasure reward? It’s called the opiod system. This is important. Because the two in tandem (dopamines and opiods) create a cycle of seeking pleasure and receiving it. According to Susan Weinschenk, author of Brainwise, 

“The wanting system (dopamines) propel you to action, and the liking system (opiods) makes you feel satisfied and therefore pauses your seeking...”

But here’s the catch: Often dopamines can be more powerful than opiods. In fact, our brains become even more stimulated when they’re searching for a pleasure, than when they’ve found it. Makes sense. Chasing a hot guy can be way more fun than having him as your boyfriend and folding his socks. This too can be linked back to Evolution, since it pays to keep searching for nuts and berries even after you’ve found a little snack.

So that's the Dopamine Loop. We get rewarded for seeking, so we seek more. And so begins very same cycle in the brain that's fueled every kind of addiction in the history of humankind. From drugs to sex to fried twinkies. And it all makes perfect sense when it comes to digital addiction. That’s why we keep Googling long after we’ve found the answer we were looking for. Because it’s the seeking system (the dopamine system) that feels the nicest.

 

WHY THE INTERNET MAKES THE PERFECT DOPAMINE COCKTAIL

Remember, Dopamine is the itch for a reward. And the internet, with its infinite possibilities, has plenty of ways to scratch that itch. 

  1. Dopamines get stirred on by unpredictability. - Who knows what’s going to be on Instagram today. Who EVEN knows?

  2. Dopamines are sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. - Think a notification or five unread messages on your phone.

  3. Dopamines love a little tease. - In fact, it can be even more powerful when the information is so little, it doesn’t satiate. Dare we say 140 characters? Or an emoji text?

All this may not be enough to spur a clinical addiction to our phones. But one 2001 study shows it create "checking habits" that eventually can be a "gateway" to more time spent on our phones. “We never know when we’ll get a satisfying email, so we keep checking, over and over again, like slot machines," writes  David Greenfield, psychologist and author of Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, and Those Who Love Them.  "We keep seeking that pleasurable hit." 

 

photo-1442412884322-bf142586405d.jpeg

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM, AGAIN?

Ok. So all that sounds lovely. Coating our brains in chocolatey-feel-good-hormone-drugs. But there are a couple reasons that might not be a good thing.

 

We’re Chasing the Digital Dragon

Studies show this craving for a little brain treat is rarely satiated. Just because you get a hit of Dopamine, doesn’t guarantee it’ll be rewarded with opiods. This Dopamine loop creates a habit of seeking without ever really allowing our brains to enjoy the fruits of our labor. There it is, folks. We’re living for the thrill of the chase. And seldom taking anyone home. It's like being single all over again. The loop works by dooming us to never feel satisfied. 

 

We’re finding real-life more boring

Matt Richtel, New York Times journalist and author of The Deadly Wandering says we've become so accustomed to these little "squirts of dopamine" that "in its absence, we feel bored.” This, in itself, if pretty scary. Because real life includes love, pain, babies born, lessons learned, and whole galaxies moving around us. What does it mean if we all begin finding that stuff boring compared to the angry little birds on our phones?

 

We’re distracted and not thinking straight

Richtel adds that this Dopamine Cycle “Hijacks the prefrontal cortex" of our brains. You know, the decision-making part. Yikes, indeed. This leaves us making all kinds of dangerous decisions, like tweeting while we’re driving. In fact, studies show people text and drive even when they know better. 

 

It’s making us terrible people to be around

In an article for Fast Company, Elizabeth Segran writes,

“Results from the few studies that have been done are troubling. Social media appears to promote narcissism, smartphones could be causing insomnia, and screens seem to be making our kids less empathetic.” If these aren't reasons enough to step back and examine our relationships with technology, then what is?

 

WELL, DAMN. WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?

It’s not all doom and gloom. We do have the power to shut this loop down. Studies show acknowledging a thought pattern and redirecting it can actually create new patterns in the mind.

That's nothing new. As the old saying goes, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. In fact, there’s an entire field of study on addiction. And it just might be ripe for answers on the best ways to approach our digital twitches.  Susan Weinschenk adds,

"One of the most important things you can do to prevent or stop a dopamine loop, and be more productive is to turn off the cues. Adjust the settings on your cell phone and on your laptop, desktop or tablet so that you don't receive the automatic notifications."  

And even better news. That's why we're here. Hush is dedicated to providing all the tools you need to finding a healthier balance with your digital habits. We can't guarantee you won't stare at some sweaty foreheads, checking Tinder, in the meantime. But that doesn't mean you can't start being more intentional with your own digital practices. Just check out our latest list of gear to help you start right now.

 

 

For more information on the Dopamine loop, visit:

Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309 - 369 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=140&v=4ReDYMBeHZ4

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/12/neuroscience-texting-driving_n_6147278.html?utm_hp_ref=unplug-and-recharge