Apple says that iPhone users unlock their phones 80 times per day and that we tap, type or swipe our phones an average of 2,600 times per day.
Remember the days spent, blistered thumbs playing snake on a Nokia 3210. The joy was real. Life without credit, a character cap that changed our tongue. OMG, rmbr? It was simpler back then. You didn’t rely on Google to tell you which turn to take next. You paid your taxi fare with real money. You showed up on time to meet your friend because if you didn’t they’d have left. These days we have the world at our fingertips – take out food, apple pay, doggie cam, Instagram. More tech, less stress. Doesn’t take much to please us. But how smart is the phone really and what’s it doing to our brains?
There’s a mound of evidence to support the link between technology and the dopamine centre in the brain, and specifically how prolonged smartphone use hi-jacks it. Dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters produced in the brain. It’s the feel good stuff that motivates us to act. Motivation and reward seeking behaviour – that’s its gig and is essential for making changes in behaviour. Every time your phone pings and you check it to see who has whatsapped you or liked your pic your brain rewards you with a shot of dopamine. Over time it starts to release the dopamine earlier and earlier until just seeing your phone is enough to cause a dopamine surge in anticipation. You get high waiting for the phone to call, for the dopamine hit, the brain to bawl. Hours spent scrolling, refreshing for more. The struggle is real, the bliss is pure. But when you’re married to your phone you have less time and interest for other stuff. Like a parasite it eats up your day not to mention your brain.
Hats off to the smartphone for hijacking our emotional tank too.
Dealing with strong emotions can be hard and sometimes it’s easier to avoid them but phone addiction is the perfect way to distract from a life that’s not exactly what you want it to be. People who struggle with regulating their emotions or those prone to suppressing them are especially susceptible. Initially the distraction is a welcome release but over time it creates patterns that can derail your mental health such as a decrease in focus and productivity or less time spent on activities that bring real enjoyment such as running or creative pursuits.
Another tiresome effect of excessive phone use is the link to poor sleep. Looking at your phone before bed creates all kinds of confusion in the brain. The blue light the smartphone emits is designed to mimic the brightness of the sun. The brain, so easily confused thinks it’s day time and stops producing melatonin, the hormone that signals the body to sleep pushing your whole sleep cycle out of whack. Obvious effects include reduced productivity and effects to mood and irritability. In the longer term poor sleep patterns are linked to depression, obesity and some cancers.
Being connected at all times can prop us up for a little while but before long it can leave us wiped out and washed up craving meaningful connections with friends in real life. If you look closely how much meaning is really attached to group chats and comments on social media. Is anyone interested in how anyone really is? Or is our default to share bad news and photos of our weekend? And do we even use language anymore or are we lost in a dialect of emojis and memes? And when we are socialising in real life are we even there? Like really in the moment? Or sizing up the next photo opportunity or chance to check how many likes your insta story got? Deep connection is in fact the antidote to madness so reach out and go deep. Your soul will thank you.
Smartphones demand constant attention and therein lies the problem.
Studies show that constantly checking your phone smashes productivity. Flow, that elusive state creatives and artists famously rave about is that stage in which you are wholly absorbed by an activity. It’s those moments of focus when you’re getting sh*t done. Achieving this can take several minutes of uninterrupted concentration and interruptions as little as 2 seconds increasing our capacity for cognitive errors. But we just can’t help ourselves. On average we check our phones every 18 minutes in work, even there is no indication of a new message.
80 times a day, 2,600 actions a day is a scary thought. That’s a whole lot of time to fill with activities much more meaningful than that. Like walking a dog, or clipping your nails or chatting with someone you haven’t spoke to in a while. That’s time that could be spent building deeper connections and going after that dream you’ve always had but never quite had the time to do it. It’s hard for sure but it is possible and if a smartphone can hack your dopamine system in such a powerful way then it can be damn sure you’re going to fight back.
Some simple ways to take back control include turning off notifications.
Avoid the high of seeing a message pop up and dedicate time every hour to specifically check your phone. Keep your phone out of sight when it’s not in use, that means off the desk. Step away from the phone. That way your brain won’t produce a high at the sight of it. Practice going phone free to a day. Try it on for size, notice how you feel. Do you miss it? Are you more productive? Do you chat more to those around you? Try it out, see what fits. Who knows, you might be reaching for the Nokia sooner than you think.