Is Smartphone Addiction Real?

Category: Gadgets

Once brushed aside as “Luddite hysteria,” the addictive power of technology (and smartphones in particular) is now taken quite seriously by scientists, policymakers, and even Apple shareholders. Research has shown decisively that too much “screen time” is harmful, especially to children. Here's an analysis of the problem, and some tips on breaking free...

Breaking Smartphone Addiction

I cringe when I see a young parent hand their smartphone or tablet to a toddler. I know the damage it will ultimately cause, because I've seen a generation of kids grow up with these gadgets glued to their hands from dawn to dusk. We've heard about the woman who fell into the fountain while texting, but the problem goes a lot deeper than soggy pants at the mall.

It’s not just the number of hours spent online that do damage. Apps, games and social networks are deliberately designed to be addictive, and have the unintended consequence of destroying one of our uniquely human talents: the ability to pay attention.

Tristan Harris is a former Google product manager who left the tech giant to sound the alarm about “brain hijacking,” a term Silicon Valley programmers use to describe what they do. Using principles of neuroscience and behavioral psychology, they design games, quizzes, user interfaces, and social network features that not only make you want to use them but actually compel you to keep using them, even against your better judgment.

What is smartphone addiction?

“(E)very time I check my phone,” Harris told CBS News recently, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.”

On Facebook, a tiny blue thumb waggles when you “like” something, an approving response that tells your brain to “like” more things. Instagram has an algorithm that predicts when you are likely to be about to log off; at such moments, Instagram hits you with a flood of “likes” because who wants to quit when they’re “on a roll?” The “whoosh” sound when you send a text make you want to send more texts. Every nuance of your devices and most of the things you do on them have such insidious incentives coded into them.

Distraction Yields Engagement

Distraction is another way to increase “engagement.” When you are writing a new status update, Facebook doesn’t ask what you are feeling to help you express yourself better. It asks so that you will be distracted from what you are writing and spend time selecting a “feeling.” Then it tempts you to select an emoji that captures that feeling. The latest distraction: select a color and background pattern for your post! (I bet you thought that was to help you emphasize your post among all the others on your friends’ newsfeed.) These distractions break your focus on what you came to write.

Your brain likes to be distracted; that’s a primitive survival trait. An animal that can easily and rapidly switch its perception from one object to another is more likely to spot a threat in time and live to reproduce. The human ability to focus, to pay attention to one thing for an extended period, is mainly a matter of filtering out distractions. Modern tech is undermining our ability to pay attention.

The results are seen not only in today’s classrooms but in adult interactions of all kinds. Have you found yourself asking, with exasperation, “What did I just say?” more often than you did just five years ago? I have. Invariably, my absent-minded interlocutor’s phone is visible, if not literally between us.

Tomorrow’s adult ADD cases are in today’s classrooms. Just a few years ago, a teacher would confiscate a phone if it was visible during instructional time. But no more. Teachers and administrators are powerless to intervene, because prying an iPhone from a teenager's hand is likely to induce a meltdown. Such extreme emotional reactions are a sure sign of addiction.

Technology is Neutral?

The battle for your brain is a rigged game. The old saw, “Technology is neutral, you decide how you will use it” is now a lie, if it ever was true. The software platforms that we use are deliberately designed to make us use them more, for the purpose of making more profits for the designers. And they’re designed using underhanded biological and psychological tricks, not by making software that is more useful.

How can we reclaim our focus, our time, our real lives in the real world? Perhaps even more importantly, how can we help children avoid growing into mentally, emotionally, and socially crippled adults? These disturbing questions and others are being asked of tech giants in ever louder voices.

Venture capital heavyweight JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System collectively own $2 billion of Apple stock; Tim Cook pays attention to them. These entities co-authored a letter to Apple’s board of directors in January, 2018, that I highly recommend to my readers.

You have your own battles to fight, for yourself and your loved ones. A new book by Catherine Price, “How to Break Up With Your Phone” gives practical advice on how to extricate yourself from online addiction, and how to immunize youngsters against it. (Hint: abstinence is not the answer.)

Nicholas Carr's book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” provides a great review of the scientific research into that very question. It’s a bit scary.

An article in Today's Parent magazine lists 9 Signs Of Screen Addiction In Kids. Here's a smartphone addiction test, and some self-help tips for dealing with the problem.

Do you recognize symptoms of screen addiction in yourself, your spouse, or your child? I urge you to check out the resources mentioned above, and do your own research on how to find balance. Our brains are at stake.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Smartphone Addiction Real?"

Posted by:

25 May 2018

Recent research has shown that getting a "hit" or a "like" causes a release of dopamine into the brain. This produces a high or feeling of well being. This is, of course, very addicting.

The addiction to cell phones is not only harmful physically but also when used to the extent we see today, starts to rewire the brain, and not in a good way. I've noticed teens are now unable to truly converse face to face and are losing empathy and other human traits. Time to put those mind control devices down, go take a walk and interact with people and nature again. Sometimes I wish smartphones had never been invented.

Posted by:

25 May 2018

YES. . .Smart Phones can be addictive!!! This is no different than when Personal Computers became affordable, there were those persons who were addicted to being on their PCs.

Addiction is not just about booze, drugs and taking external substances. Addiction can also be a "state of mind."

When one has an Addictive Personality, it is much easier for them to become addictive. Many times these individuals have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). An OCD person is frequently a Perfectionist. These are the ones who can become addictive, as well as other disorders of the mind.

Bottom line. . .YES. . .Individuals can become addictive to their Cell Phones.

Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese`
25 May 2018

Your article contains sobering information, Bob. Before I got past the headline, my initial reaction was, "Well, how do you define 'addiction'?"

But your first paragraph clearly demonstrated that the discussion has gone far past semantics.

Judging by your readers' reactions to previous articles, I expect many to respond smugly, "Well, I, for one, never use anything but my landline."

And that's fine for those who never NEED anything but a landline. But for those of us who need access to telephones away from the home or office, some of the resources you suggested look promising. I'm particularly interested in the book you linked to by Catherine Price, "How to Break up with Your Phone." The blurb on Amazon promises, "Do you say you want to spend less time on your phone—but have no idea how to do so without giving it up completely? If so, this book is your solution."

Others may respond to your article by proudly proclaiming they are not addicted. And, of course, they may be right.

But that ignores the problems I'm seeing in my grandchildren and their friends. And I cringe when I see mothers (or fathers) out walking with their youngsters, and they--the PARENTS--are deep into their phones. What a waste of a precious opportunity to ENGAGE with the youngsters! And what kind of antisocial behavior are we modeling?

Your article is well-timed, Bob. And at under $10, the Price book is certainly affordable.

... Plus, at that low Kindle price, I'll be able to read it ... on my SMARTPHONE!!!!

Mac 'n' Cheese

Posted by:

25 May 2018

no problem at all,do not use social networks, no smart phone do watch what I do, am a lot happier for not having a phone. Bill my biggest problem is the keyboard that takes up 1/2 screen. It is up to the parents to watch the children and help them don't put in there hands and no problem


Posted by:

25 May 2018

Great timing Bob! I am in the process of research for an English Comp paper and this is exactly, and I mean exactly what I'm writing about. I will be looking at the resources you've mentioned to find info and may incorporate it into the paper. (properly cited of course) Thanks, Bob!

Posted by:

25 May 2018

What an awesome topic and great coverage of it, Mr. Rankin.
Unfortunately, it (and you) only scratch(es) the surface.
The young Ned Ludd must have been a visionary.
But we must have to admit that there are still only 24 hours in a day.
I would love to continue reading all of the references you cite but not until the technology allows me a direct spinal tap due to my own, otherwise, flawed and limited time management skills. Which, must include doctors’ prescribed brushing of teeth 3 times a day and 8.3 hours of sleep, amongst my many other daily rituals…
I don’t know how YOU do it!
“Well, I, for one, never use anything but my landline!”; “What did I just say?”; “…how to find a balance.”; and “Our brains are at stake.” Way over cooked; to be sure!

Posted by:

25 May 2018

We had a recent local news report of a person being ticketed for driving while texting.
Two blocks down the road, the individual received a second fine of several hundred dollars for again texting about their first fine while driving.
Now, that's addiction.

Posted by:

jimmie blackburn
25 May 2018

I do not have a smart phone, and I am not on any social media platforms. I have only a desktop and laptop computer which I use to check msotly news websites and emails. I check each one once a day, but even so I find myself with that same feeling of
"let's see what is new here today?" I might miss something. I am 70 years old and have had computers for only about 15 years. My 13-year-old and 9-year- old grandsons are already addicted, and their parents limit their use of electronic devices.

Posted by:

Paul Hogan
26 May 2018

A great article Bob. Should be read by everyone.

Posted by:

26 May 2018

Time will tell what happens to these addicts!
In Canada we call them, "Cell phone or Smart phone ZOMBIES."!!!

Posted by:

Gloria Huffman
26 May 2018

Today I was standing on a corner and told a woman who was staring at her smartphone while in the crosswalk, "Don't look at that while you're crossing the street." She said, "I'm fine." I looked right at her eyes (which were unseeing when she looked at me) and said, "My nephew died." After she passed by, her parting shot was, "I'm fine." I said, in a motherly voice, "Just don't do it!"

1. "Distraction, On Street And Sidewalk, Helps Cause Record Pedestrian Deaths"
March 30, 2017

"... both the drivers of the dozens of vehicles inching through traffic and the scores of pedestrians crossing the busy intersections. One thing many have in common is that their eyes are down, staring at their phones." "After speeding and the failure to yield, distractions are the number three cause [of pedestrian fatalities], particularly by electronic devices."

2. "Last 2 Years 'Have Set Records' For Pedestrian Deaths, Traffic Researcher Says"
February 28, 2018

"You have to go back over 25 years to find a time in American history where that many people die in pedestrian crashes," ... "Imagine a scenario where both a driver is looking down and a pedestrian is staring at a phone — they don't see each other coming."

Posted by:

Dave Fox
26 May 2018

Bob, great article! I have to agree with some of your comments, children's minds are being hijacked by this technology, all for the sake of the big company's making money. What a disgrace! I just recently purchased an Android phone to make texting easier, I'm an old dog, and doing all that clicking trying to make text messages with fat fingers was a mess! First thing I did was removed all the social apps and all the other unnessary junk that comes with the phone. I have a nice unit now that is easy to use, and maybe check it once a day to see if I have missed anything incoming.

Posted by:

26 May 2018

Dear Bob,
Thanks very much for an exceptionally useful article.
However, I have one question: Whatever happened to self-control? I have a Samsung Note 8, and I can assure you that I am not addicted to this phone. I like using it, but I don't have my face in it all the time.

Posted by:

27 May 2018

Hi Bob and all the readers,
Although your article is truly great, with all the resources and sources, it is hardly new. What IS new, is that when years back all those hippie alarmists were shouting "DANGER!!!", we laughed at them and called them names, like "alarmist", or "conspiracy theorists". Now time came to prove them right, and us wrong.
I remember looking at a picture of a group of young folks sitting in a restaurant, around a table, and instead at each other, all of them were looking at their cell phones. It was funny to look at, but it is tragic to think about it. And not only for those "road kills" while walking or driving, but for the loss of an individual thinking, reasoning and inventive reactions.
Nezzar touched on the solution. Self-control. In today's world nobody can afford to get rid of the device. It is here to stay. But we need to learn to use it to our advantage, not to become a slave to it. We can start by refusing to answer our boss's emails after the work day ended. Hahaha.

Posted by:

27 May 2018

People can get totally oblivious to what is happening around them when looking at stuff on their smart phones. About 50 metres from my house a girl going home from school walked straight into the side of a passing freight train. Being a heartless bastard, my reaction on hearing about it was that it would help weed a bit of stupidity out of the gene pool, but she was only injured.

Posted by:

29 May 2018

I read a frightening stat (if it's true) that 1 in 4 children age 0 - 7 years old have their OWN smart phone. How pathetic is that?

Posted by:

Bill R.
04 Jun 2018

Hello Bob, I have witnessed people TEXTING while driving and running me off the road when riding my motorcycle..I now watch for the slow car, the head down driver, or the vehicle that clings to the edge of the driving lane..On a bike texting would be Deadly so I have no Blue Tooth on my bike..I only use a flip phone and don't do social media..I stay very happy this way and my spouse with her addiction can't understand my reasoning..

Posted by:

07 Jun 2018

And now these addictions are affecting the animal world. Have you ever checked how many games and videos there are on YouTube - just for CATS.

My daughter and I each have a cat who is addicted to games and videos on the iPad.
Sometimes when I'm using the iPad, she will try to get it away from me to play.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Smartphone Addiction Real? (Posted: 25 May 2018)
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