Are you addicted to your smartphone?

March 26th, 2018

Designed to addict?

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, voiced this concern recently in an interview with Axios while describing the “unintended consequences” of the social network he helped launch over a decade ago. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” he explained, designed to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”

Parker is just one of many former Silicon Valley insiders calling attention to the addictive potential of smartphones and social media. The Center for Humane Technology is led by former Facebook investor and adviser Roger McNamee and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris. On its website, the center argues that this technology is “hijacking our minds and society.” The organization goes on to claim that since the business models of social media platforms depend upon capturing our attention ever more effectively, these platforms are “not neutral products” but “part of a system designed to addict us.” “Inadvertently,” Harris told 60 Minutes, “whether they want to or not, [tech companies] are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people.”

Concerns about social media and the rise of smartphones aren’t new, but the charges leveled by Harris, Parker and others carry more weight due to their former roles and cast our culture’s level of cyber-connection in a harsher light. The concerns of these industry insiders force us to ask ourselves difficult questions: Are smartphones and social media addictive? If so, what should we do about it?

Defining tech addiction

Consider these statistics:

  • A survey by Deloitte, a telecommunications company, found that smartphone users in the United States check their phones 47 times a day. About 100 million users check their phones in the middle of the night. Additionally, 43 percent check their phone in the first five minutes after they wake up. 
  • Gallup polling reports that 46 percent of U.S. smartphone users agree with the statement: “I can’t imagine my life without my smartphone.” 42 percent say losing their phone and going a day without replacing it would make them somewhat or very nervous. 
  • In a Common Sense Media survey, 59 percent of parents claimed their teenagers were addicted to their mobile devices. 50 percent of teens agreed. When 28 percent of teens said their parents suffered tech addiction, 27 percent of the parents agreed. 

What do these statistics tell us? Are they really anything more than evidence of the pervasiveness of smartphones and social media? When teens and adults say they’re “addicted,” are they speaking of true addiction of the kind related to tobacco, alcohol and opioids, or are they speaking colloquially? “All addictions, whether chemical or behavioral, share certain characteristics,” Dr. Hilarie Cash and her colleagues observe in Current Psychiatry Reviews. These shared characteristics include “salience [the sense of being most important], compulsive use (loss of control), mood modification and the alleviation of distress, tolerance and withdrawal and the continuation despite negative consequences.”

In recent years, some psychiatric researchers have proposed diagnostic criteria specific to smartphone use, criteria that mirror the contours of other addictions. For instance, in 2016, Dr. Yu-Hsuan Lin and colleagues proposed including symptoms such as

  • “Recurrent failure to resist the impulse to use the smartphone” 
  • “Smartphone use for a period longer than intended” 
  • “Smartphone use in a physically hazardous situation ([such as] while driving, or crossing the street), or having other negative impacts on daily life” 
  • “Smartphone use resulting in impairment of social relationships, school achievement, or job performance.” 

Not all experts believe smartphone addiction is a real disorder, and some question whether attempts to establish it as one trivializes the very concept of addiction. In a 2015 article on Slate, medical writer Melissa Jayne Kinsey argues, “Turning ordinary behavior and emotions into diagnoses flattens the bell curve of human experience, quashing the quirks and idiosyncrasies that lie at the fringes.”

Smartphone and social media neuroscience

As debate continues about the reality of tech addiction, so does research into our attraction to this technology.

In one study, researchers at UCLA scanned teenagers’ brains while the youth looked at photographs, including ones they had submitted, on what they believed was a new social media network. Researchers assigned “likes” to the pictures. “When the teens saw their own photos with a large number of likes,” said Dr. Lauren Sherman, “we saw activity across a wide variety of regions in the brain,” including reward centers that are also stimulated by eating chocolate or winning money.

While adolescents’ brains may have more sensitive reward circuitry, this study could also suggest why people of all ages eagerly, even compulsively, check their phones for social media updates: We associate the action with a pleasure response. David Greenfield, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, told NPR that our brains likely release pleasure-inducing dopamine when we hear social media notifications: “That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us.” Further, “smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov’s dogs,” he said. Sean Parker believes this chemistry accounts for much of Facebook’s popularity. He told Axios that the network delivers “a little dopamine hit every once in a while.”

Could using smartphones and social media do more than simply trigger these responses? Could it alter the chemistry of the brain itself? A recent study in South Korea, featured in a December 2017 CNN article, revealed chemical imbalances in the brains of 19 adolescents who were diagnosed as Internet- and smartphone-addicted. The brains of these teens had higher than normal levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in their emotional control centers. Too much GABA can lead to a lack of control and attention.

The South Korean study involved only a small sample and wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Dr. Caglar Yildirim, a SUNY professor of human-computer interaction who wasn’t involved in the study, told CNN its findings align with established research. “We know that medium to heavy multitaskers, who engage in multiple forms of media simultaneously, tend to demonstrate smaller gray matter area in . . . the area of the brain responsible for top-down attention control. . . . If you are too dependent on your smartphone, you are basically damaging your ability to be attentive.”

Seeking solutions, sacred time

The Center for Humane Technology is calling on certain tech companies to redesign their devices and interfaces in ways that minimize screen time, discourage distractions, protect personal relationships and generally “benefit our lives and society.” However, until tech companies decide to go along with these recommendations for less compelling social media platforms and mobile devices, solutions will have to come from elsewhere.

We as consumers can take steps to limit our smartphone use. We can turn off notifications, for example, or set alarms to monitor our phone time. One popular movement has included users setting their phones’ screens to grayscale, because less color makes the display less engaging and therefore less tempting.

Some smartphone users are even lifting a page from the Bible. They declare one day a week a “Tech Shabbat” during which they will not use their smartphones. Every Friday night, for example, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain and her family shut off all their devices for 24 hours. “It’s something we look forward to each week,” Shlain told NPR Morning Edition in February. “You’re making your time sacred again — reclaiming it.”

Shlain’s family isn’t religious, but Christians can still learn from them about how to respond to tech addiction. The church and other faith communities can model ways of reclaiming time — all those precious hours, minutes and seconds spent looking at screens — as God’s sacred gift, not to be squandered or profaned. Although we live in hope for God’s future, we can also support all people as they make the psalm-singer’s prayer for the present their own: “Teach us to number our days so we can have a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12). We’re called to fully trust the Spirit’s guidance as we seek to use technology, perhaps even smartphones and social media, to reinforce, but not replace, relationships with one another that enable us to live life in its fullness, as God intends (John 10:10).

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