Are we addicted to our smartphones and social media? The answer is undeniably yes. We are constantly distracted from the real world by notifications in our mobile world. We are being programmed to respond to our phones flashing up all the time and effectively becoming a slave to the device in our pocket. Tech firms are utilising this to keep us engaged with their applications and keep us going back for more.
Nomophobia. The fear of being phoneless. Yes, that's a thing. It's common knowledge that our smartphone use and social media obsession isn't healthy - It affects our mental health and our mood but still we go back for more. We're addicted.
Have you ever popped out and forgot your phone? That constant feeling that you're missing something, your hand reaching in your bag or pocket to check it but then remembering you haven't got it with you. It's not a nice feeling. We're used to having it near us constantly all day, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. You probably even plug it in next to your bed at night.
Because of this constant companionship, we allow our lives to be interrupted whenever we hear a bleep or feel a buzz. Reading messages, taking calls, scrolling social media feeds all when it's a bit socially unacceptable - Whatever we're doing, we put on hold to see what our phone is telling us.
And that's all down to the feeling we get when we receive a notification. Everytime we eat, have sex, drink alcohol, ingest drugs, we trigger the pleasure centres in our brain. Getting a phone notification affects us in the same way - Receiving a text or a Facebook notification gives us the same dopamine hit. So it's pretty unsurprising that we've become addicted to our phones and are fearful of being without them.
There is research that suggests that these obsessive behviours toward our smartphone use pre-date technology and are actually evolutionary - We have an innate need to socialise with others, be seen by others, and to watch others behaviour. Fundamentally, we also find the easiest way to achieve our goals. And so voila - The smartphone lets us do all of these things very easily indeed.
Is our addiction to notifications really just an evolutionary need to connect with other people? Perhaps. But why do we forfeit real, face to face connection for a text or a DM?
The underlying cause isn't such a bad thing. We need to connect with others, to compare with them, and we're wired to be curious about what other people are doing. Our phones and social media platforms give us the perfect opportunity to do these things. We're a hypersocial species, but is our drive for human connection causing us to get lost in the anti-social nature of our smartphone world?
This hunger for socialising is being exploited by tech firms and app developers - The affects of smartphones on our brain's reward system results in us interacting with people in person less, having sex less, and spending more time alone on our phones online trying to get the social connection we are craving.
Every ping, buzz or ring makes us eagerly check our phones because that dopamine trigger in our brain compels us to answer it. It's been likened to variable rewards - We don't know whether the ping will be a boring marketing text or a message from a friend about meeting up.
But it's the unknown, the unpredictability of it maybe being that 'big reward' that makes us compulsively check our phones, even if it's not socially acceptable at that moment.
And it's that unpredictability and reward of human interaction that apps mimic. Apps are designed to give you that same feeling, that addictive dopamine hit that you would get if you received a text or a phone call. For example, Facebook might send you a push notification telling you that a friend has posted a new picture, or started a live video. This might feel like they are communicating with you, but Facebook is engineering that interaction and enticing you to use the app.
Push notifications weren't always like this, and were actually originally designed to make you check your phone LESS. In the days of the Blackberry (remember them?) a push notification would alert you to a new email, in a bid to stop you intermittently picking up your phone to check if you had any new ones.
Now, apps have taken the push notification, and used it to lure us into using our phone when we might not choose to, and engage us with their app to hook us in to using it more and more, rather than less.
The same logic of why slot machines are addictive, applies to smartphones - There is a lack of predictability as to what's coming next in your feed; will it be good, or bad, interesting or dull? The pull to refresh action on Facebook and Twitter, like pulling a slot machine lever, literally has a spinning wheel at the top of the page while it refreshes and loads new content - This is a conscious design choice. Not only does it constantly update your feed to keep you scrolling, but the action also gives you a false sense of control over what you're doing.
But you're not really in control, you're enabling an infinite stream of content.
And those little notification bubbles that pop up are also designed to demand your attention. Our brains are attracted to bright lights and colours, especially red, so when that little red notification bubble sits on top of our apps, how can we resist tapping it and then getting sucked in?
So what can we do about it? Several things, actually.
There's a great video on this topic at Vox:
But here are the main tips.
1. Change the way your phone communicates with you. Turn off Push notifications, so you're not told every time something happens on Facebook or Instagram. You decide when you want to log in and have a scroll, rather than picking up your phone to make a call and instead tapping in to Facebook to see what Joe's livestreaming from his holiday in Bognor.
2. Set your phone to greyscale. If your apps can't fool you into thinking that their notification is super important with their bright red bubble, then you will be less inclined to press on it. If everything is grey, then that sensory aspect that keeps us so addicted to looking at our phones is dulled and nullified.
3. Only have the most necessary apps on your home screen. Make sure the apps that you have when on-screen when you unlock your phone are ones that you need to use in your day to day life - Maybe a travel app, maps, calendar, notes and reminders. Basically, nothing that has infinite scrolling or autoplays videos. We rely on visual cues to stop something, rather than internal cues. For example, if you're scrolling through Google you'll find it paginated - At the end of each page you have to choose to go onto the next one, and you can see how many pages there are altogether. If you have videos on autoplay, they are harder to stop as you're not making a conscious decision to press play, it just comes on and then goes onto the next, just like Instagram stories. There is no endpoint (unless you watch them all...), and we rely more on something telling us when to stop rather than our own internal cues. Taking away these kind of apps from your everyday view will help you to be less distracted by them.
At the end of the day, we need our phones to stay in touch with friends and family and keep up to date with work emails and schedule meetings. Apps aren't all bad, and can be very convenient too. But it's no surprise that we're so addicted to our phones given our evolutionary biological need for social connection and interaction in addition to the physical affects that getting notifications has on our brains pleasure centre. Apps and phones might be designed to lure us in but fundamentally we need to make a conscious decision and ask ourselves - What is genuinely worth our attention?
With thanks to the following sources of information: