Tens of thousands of years ago, when we homo sapiens were just getting started, we had to be able to effectively meet our goals in order to survive–we had to find water, get enough to eat, seek shelter, and generally get things done. Unlike now, if we just lay about all day not accomplishing anything, we’d die. We had to be goal-oriented.
The key driver for this goal-seeking behaviour was, and is, a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is the reward chemical–it provides the little hit of “goodness” we feel when we accomplish a goal. (That delightful feeling of crossing something off your to-do list? Dopamine.) It’s an evolutionary gift from a long line of ancestors that helped us survive. It helps us see rewards, and take action to get them.
So what does this have to do with your cell phone?
Because accomplishing goals like “find food” were so critical, dopamine became a pretty addictive chemical in the brain. We LIKE the feeling of dopamine, and are driven to do what creates the release of it. We’re easily addicted to things that deliver it.
The problem is that some things that have nothing to do with creating a meaningful life create dopamine for us. Things like alcohol, nicotine, gambling and yes, that delightful little “ding” your cell phone makes when you get a text.
Every time you hear the sound of a new message or see the tiny alerts or badges onscreen, your reward system swings into gear. Almost all of this happens below the level of your awareness. All you know is that you simply can’t resist checking your phone.
How Do You Know if You’re Addicted?
The same brain chemistry that casinos hijack to keep you sitting at a slot machine for hours is being hijacked to keep you staring at a screen. Your phone has been doing a remarkable job of training you. And not just to respond to whistles and signals like a trained seal, but to find it intolerable to suffer even a few moments without stimulation.
Here are some questions to ask yourself?
- When you wake up in the morning do you check your phone before you go to the bathroom?
- Do you walk from room to room holding your phone all the time?
- If you get a text while driving, do you find it impossible to wait the ten minutes until you get home to look at it and respond?
- Do you regularly respond to texts while reading your kid a bedtime story?
- Are you unable to leave your phone in the car when you are having dinner out with friends?
- Are you incapable of sitting quietly for ten minutes without looking at your phone?
- Do you use your phone while watching TV or eating?
Why is it important to ask ourselves these questions? Here are a few things you might find interesting about high cell phone use. It’s been linked to:
- Higher anxiety
- Lower grades
- Decreased happiness
- Lower quality sleep
- Poor posture
- Lower relationship satisfaction
- Reduced activity
- Less time outdoors
- Less time spent with others
Are those weather alerts and social media updates really that valuable?
What to Do?
Every recovering alcoholic will tell you that the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that you have one in the first place. If you can do that, what do you do next?
- Turn off your alerts. Those little badges and sounds and flashes are designed to trigger your reward system. You don’t need to get alerts from every app.
- Use “do not disturb” mode. Most devices will allow you to shut down your phone’s alert systems, while still letting through calls from a specified list of people. That way you can still get a call from your teenager or spouse, for example, but not from anyone else.
- Set time periods in which you shouldn’t use your phone (i.e., 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.).
- Designate activities in which your phone is forbidden (e.g., driving, dinner time).
- Schedule break times to access your phone or social media.
- Practice being bored. Your phone is gradually eroding your ability to simply be. Try taking longer and longer periods away from it. Reclaim your ability to live without constant digital stimulation.
If you find you can’t do these things, or instinctively push back against them, that might be the most powerful indicator of all that you have a problem.
Are you using your phone, or is it using you?