Smartphone Addiction – It’s Real
Are you addicted to your smartphone? Do you begin to feel anxious if you hear a notification, but you can't check it? Do you reach for your phone as soon as you wake up or find it hard to put it down at night?
You're not alone; many users feel the same way. But how does a pocket-sized piece of technology make you act like this?
Your phone has been designed using what's known as persuasive technology – ways to exploit your brain's natural responses and keep you swiping and clicking.
When you achieve a goal, your brain gets a hit of dopamine. That makes you feel good. In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense.
Instead of doing the bare minimum needed to stay alive, you feel good when you achieve something extra. This dopamine hit is also involved in forming habits: you're more likely to repeat actions that made you feel good.
If you get a dopamine reward from using your phone, you'll go back and do the same thing again. So, if you get likes for a post on Facebook, the social part of your brain – which evolved to make living in community easier – responds.
You get a brief feeling of pleasure but as soon as the dopamine rush is over you're left wanting to recreate the sensation. So, you'll post again.
And again. And again. Most of the people who post about the tiny details of their day know that their breakfast or their commute or the weather isn't super interesting, but they feel compelled to chase that dopamine high.
The same principle gets you scrolling endlessly through Twitter and Instagram. You saw something that made you smile, or that you identified with (which is important for that social part of your brain – it makes you feel you're not alone) and then you'll keep on looking for something else that makes you feel the same way.
This process is completely unconscious: most people who are scrolling through tweet after tweet can't actually say what they're looking for; they just feel driven to look for something.
Playing on Anxiety
Persuasive technology also plays on your anxieties. When you're anticipating something you release cortisol, a stress hormone. You feel on edge and compelled to resolve the situation.
Again, this makes perfect sense from a biological point of view. If there's a problem, your brain makes you feel uncomfortable until you deal with it.
This is why messaging services have the three dots on your screen while the other person is typing. You know that something is going to happen, but you don't know what.
This produces a stress response which you need to deal with – but there's nothing you can do except sit and stare at your phone.
If this seems hard to believe, try putting your phone away while the three dots are there on the screen. You may be surprised how hard you find it.
App designers understand a great deal about the way your brain works. For instance, most notifications will come up as a red circle on the icon.
You've been conditioned to associate red with urgency and importance and you're more likely to stop what you're doing and click a red notification than one that's pastel blue.
Designers also know that when several areas of your brain are involved in an activity it's more likely to be habit-forming.
This is why apps that auto-refresh will still tell you to tap or pull down to refresh.
Once you're using not only the part of your brain that deals with the input from your eyes but also the area that controls your arm and finger muscles, you're well on the way to forming a habit.
Manipulative Brain Games
Apps also work on the principle of loss aversion. This is a term from psychology which means that if you've put time and effort into something you're more likely to carry on doing it.
Most of the games you play on your phone don't give you any kind of reward beyond a dopamine rush, and while that's addictive in itself, it doesn't explain why you'd play one particular game for hours and hours.
You could get the same pleasure from playing ten different games, so why are you playing Fruit Ninja for five hours straight?
Because your brain knows that you've put all that time into it, so it assumes that it must be important and therefore it would be a huge loss if you were to stop. You don't want to experience loss, so you keep on playing.
Being addicted to your phone isn't necessarily a problem. If you have other things in your life that make you feel good and you have relationships with people that don't happen exclusively through social media, then checking your phone throughout the day isn't a terrible thing.
But if you ever wonder why you feel compelled to look at the screen so often, remember that whole teams of developers and designers have worked hard to release little amounts of dopamine or cortisol into your brain and to use your natural instincts to keep you swiping and clicking all day.