Is it our fault that we are addicted to smart phones?

Yesterday evening as I was reading in bed, my husband Ben was downstairs watching TV. A thought crossed my mind of something I needed to ask him, and rather than leave the warmth and comfort of my bed, I reached for my phone instead to text him.

Now, for anyone who owns an iphone, you may have received the usual notification this week with a reminder that a new software update is ready to be installed.

So, as I was sending my text, I noticed that this particular update has a new facility within the text function, that allows you to now send a mini video as you draw little sketches on the screen with your finger.

Well, what ensued after this discovery, was a flurry of text exchanges between Ben and me, of sketches, let’s say very much of the schoolboy humour variety. No need for any screen shots here – you get the picture! Very amusing it was indeed.

This morning, Ben remarked how funny that new text function is, I agreed, we had another little laugh about it, and then it was gone. We’ll probably not do that again, it was funny for about 10 minutes. That’s it.

I muttered something about “you know it’s actually just another reason for people to become addicted to their iphones”

Which then got me thinking…

Is the technology industry (big term I know) just continually coming up with new ways to feed on our addiction?

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment about addiction. It’s by Joseph Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, and the definition they use is this:

“An addiction is a habitual indulgence in any substance, activity or practice that is beyond your control and affects your life for the worse”

They have seven questions to ask of oneself as a measure of whether addictive behaviour might be at play. Answering YES to four or more, indicates yes there could well be.

  1. Do you spend a lot of time on it?
  2. Do you often overdo it, without realising or intending to?
  3. Do you need to engage in it more and more, to get any satisfaction?
  4. Do you get withdrawal symptoms if you restrain yourself?
  5. Have you stopped it, but substituted another addictive behaviour for it?
  6. Have you made at least a few attempts to quit?
  7. Does engaging in it badly affect other areas of your life?

But as I read a little further, I learn that the brain is doing exactly what it has evolved to do.

You see, the brain is designed to seek out new experiences, to keep learning and developing; this is how we have been able to survive as a species for thousands of years.

So every time we try something new, we get a rush of dopamine from the brain that ‘rewards’ us for doing so. And because it feels good, naturally we go back to the source so we can get more of the same. A natural top up.

BUT, the more we go back to it, the less dopamine we get, (because the brain wants us to continue to seek out new experiences, remember?), so we increase the number of times we return to it, in an attempt to recreate that first time. The same is true of coffee, alcohol, sugar, and recreational drugs. When you think about it, what’s the best thing about a glass of champagne? It’s the first sip. After that, it’s all a bit ‘same-y’. You can drink as much as you like, but nothing compares to that very first sip.

On a bigger scale, it’s nature’s way of encouraging us to continue to move forward and embrace our ever-changing environment, in order to protect our survival.

“Indeed, the more passionate and curious people are about life, the greater their vulnerability to addiction, because they are always open to something new and are keen to experience as much as possible, as strongly as they can.”

So when technology providers continue to bring out new software updates with bright new features, or new apps or phones, you can see how it directly feeds into our brain’s primitive need for all things shiny and new.

It’s a vicious circle, there we are hunting out the shiny and new in an attempt to get that dopamine hit, yet as soon as we get it the pleasure dial turns itself down, and our brains are already looking out for the next thing.

Technology providers know this. The very nature of technology means it never stands still, and so it will always continue to ‘feed’ our addiction.

Research conducted by British Psychologists in 2015, found that people used their smartphone twice as much as they thought they did, which indicates that not only are they engaging in addictive activity, but it’s also mindless too.

So effectively many of us are spending one third of our waking day engaged in addictive and mindless activity.

So what to do about it? Take a stand against technology or give in to it and accept this is just how it is these days?

I don’t have the answers but I do think there is a middle ground to be had here. Just having the knowledge and understanding about how our brains work in this way helps. Knowing that the more we engage in the same repetitive activity, the less our brain is going to reward us is a good starting point. So for things that we need to keep doing despite having lost enthusiasm for i.e. a piece of work or a project, it’s good to know this too.

But with repetitive digital activity, I now understand that I will get no more dopamine released in my brain from checking emails twenty times a day compared to that of twice a day. My advice? Use that time to go where the dopamine is. Do what needs to be done then switch off and go in search of new and exciting experiences!


Sarah Swanton is the Founder of Happy Healthy Entrepreneur, which is all about helping business owners and entrepreneurs successfully navigate their way through the ‘inner journey’ of being self employed, so they can do their best work with clients, and build a business that supports them, not exhausts them! Click here to get access to your free Mindset Toolkit for Entrepreneurs which includes the self hypnosis audio ‘Switch Off & Relax’ as well as a copy of the Burnout Antidote Framework.

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