Have many people actually fallen in love with or even become addicted to their smartphones? I think many of us have heard statistics suggesting that women are more likely to say that they would give up sex than their smartphones. Many of us have also witnessed scenarios like the ones I described in part 1 of this blog, where it seems as if the people around us are so addicted to their smartphones that they have become oblivious to everything else (even the emotional needs of loved ones).
I do believe it is possible to become addicted to a smartphone. When we think about addiction or substance dependence as it is often called, there are generally a few key components: preoccupation with the substance, the development of tolerance characterized by the need for increasing amounts of the substance to produce the same affects, withdrawal symptoms, and negative effects on relationship and other important areas of functioning.
In terms of preoccupation, I recently heard that the transportation authority in Britain has considered placing lights along the road at crosswalks, chiefly because people so often cross the road while looking down at their phones. As a result, they often don’t see the “walk” or “don’t walk” signs. If taking your life in your hands by crossing the road staring at a smartphone isn’t a sign of preoccupation, I’m not sure what it is. Of course, over the past several years, there also have been several prominent and tragic distracted driving cases and new laws and fines targeting distracted drivers who use their phones while driving. The vast majority of people who own smartphones report that they have their phones with them at almost all times. Smartphones accompany people into the washroom (consider that before you touch someone else’s smartphone), while driving, on dates, in movies, during therapy sessions (to the point where we have had to use what we call a mindful bucket and encourage our clients to place their smart phones in the bucket so they don’t end up texting during therapy groups), and the list goes on.
People who are addicted to substances often also become preoccupied with having, finding, or obtaining such substances. A person who is dependent on alcohol, for example, will often feel uncomfortable if there is no alcohol available in her or his home and will go out to seek and even sometimes stockpile alcohol (people addicted to prescription medications or other drugs often do the same thing). So, what happens to people when they don’t have their smartphone around? I don’t know if there’s a lot of research on this, but from what I’ve observed, many people become rather anxious when they don’t know where their smartphone is. Now, this is understandable, as those phones are rather expensive. In terms of monetary value, not knowing the location of your smartphone is akin to not knowing where your expensive mountain bike is. I don’t believe, however, that the anxiety about the missing smartphone has much to do with its cost. I think it has much more to do with our psychological attachment to the phone and what it does for us.
What about tolerance? Is it possible that people can develop a tolerance for their smartphones much like people develop a tolerance for substances? First, we could consider what a tolerance for smartphones would look like. People would need to spend more and more time with their smart phones to achieve the same effect. They might also need to do more different, interesting, or stimulating things with their phones to feel satisfied. Does this sound familiar? When you first got your smart phone, did you notice a rush of enjoyment, pleasure, or captivation just doing the simple things like checking your email or surfing the web? Do you still get that same rush, or do you need to do more interesting and diverse activities with your phone in order to achieve a similar result? I’m guessing the latter is true. Neurochemically, we know that the dopamine system in the brain is highly involved in responsiveness to rewarding stimuli. When we get positive feedback, get something right, or when our behaviour produces an immediate and desired effect, there is generally an increase in dopamine activity in our brains. Interestingly, the dopamine system also is involved in people’s responses to drugs like cocaine. In fact, there is some evidence that, over time, the use of such substances can burn out and damage dopamine receptors. Whether this kind of effect can happen with smartphones is unclear, but smartphones do have several characteristics that would seem ideally suited to activate the reward centres of our brains: (a) they are highly stimulating, (b) our behaviours produce an immediate, desired response, and (c) smartphones provide us with immediate access to a variety of enjoyable activities and stimuli such as images, sounds, writing, games and fun activities, etc. Whether tolerance for smart phones actually develops requires more research, but another even more disturbing phenomenon seems to be afoot. To be continued… ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.