96 percent of Americans own a cell phone, with 81 percent owning a smartphone — that’s a 35 percent increase since 2011.
As a nation, we are becoming more reliant on cell phones as our primary means of online communication, with smartphone users more likely to access the internet on their phone than another type of device. But at what cost? Have we really considered how our cell phone use could be impacting our brain and behavior?
On average, a person checks their phone between 50 and 300 times a day and spends approximately two hours and 51 minutes using the device. Studies show giving up a smartphone for a day resulted in increased feelings of anxiety and can cause psychological withdrawal symptoms. Worse still, there has been a link between mental health issues and increased screen activities (more than five hours a day).
My daily screen time is in excess of five hours, and that doesn’t include my time at my computer each day. In my defense — and with a heavy amount of denial — I use my cell phone to connect with the world. I communicate with the recovery community in online groups, I promote my business and podcast on my pages and groups, I also read and research using my phone.
As a writer who publishes articles predominantly online, it’s safe to say that technology underpins my business. It is the lifeblood that pays my bills. And if others didn’t use their phones and electronic devices in increasing amounts as a primary source of the internet, I’d have to look for other work.
I could argue that my cell phone and device use has had a profoundly positive impact on my life: it facilitated my career change and relocation to the US, and also helped me transition out of AA to an online community. But it isn’t without negative consequences. I have repetitive strain injury in my wrists and carpal tunnel syndrome, and it is affecting my brain and behavior — sometimes contributing to episodes of depression — even though I don’t like to admit it. And I’m not alone. A study published in 2018 found a positive correlation between smartphone addiction and depression. The authors described that correlation as “alarming,” and advised more reasonable usage of smartphones, especially among younger adults.
And yet, I keep picking up my phone. It’s like my brain reaches for my phone before I realize that it’s happened. The process is automatic—it’s now a reflex. And I panic when I can’t find my phone. I wake up by checking my email, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other messaging apps. I flick between each app throughout the day, and before I know it I’ve reached a screen time figure above the national average. It takes a concerted effort to leave my phone alone when I wake up and do something more nurturing.
It leads me to question whether something that has changed my life has now become a hindrance. And am I spending more time on my phone when I could be interacting with people in real life? Is my recurring depression a symptom of my phone use and my job?
I’d like to say that I’m unusual in my cell phone behavior, but that isn’t the case. More and more Americans are using cell phones problematically, in a way that could be defined as addictive.
What is cell phone addiction?
While excessive cell phone use isn’t yet classified as an addiction or behavioral disorder, it has been studied over the past few years and it has some striking similarities to other types of addiction, like substance use disorder.
Dr. David Greenfield of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine designed a questionnaire that focuses on your cell phone habits, like spending more time online than in person, using your phone more than you’d like, panicking if you leave your phone somewhere, sleeping next to your phone, and using it while performing other concentration-heavy activities like driving. A score of 5 or more indicates problematic use. A score of 8 or more recommends that you see a psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors.
Greenfield describes cell phones as “the world’s smallest slot machine.” You don’t know what you’re going to find, but it could elicit a reward. “When you do check it and there’s something pleasurable, there’s a small elevation of dopamine in the limbic system of your brain. And that elevation causes pleasure. You’re not aware of that pleasure, but that pleasure motivates you,” he says.
Whether we’re seeking a reward through our phones, sex, or substances, they all result in a release of dopamine and create a reward circuit that the brain remembers. This explains the reflexive action of checking your phone so frequently: we’re seeking pleasure.
What’s interesting about people in recovery is that we have a significant reduction of dopamine receptors from drug and alcohol use, and this condition continues long after we stop using, making us more likely to find less pleasure in day-to-day life and more prone to seeking rewards. A low number of dopamine receptors is also linked to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which impairs a person’s ability to think critically and exercise restraint.
Additionally, cell phones and social media apps are designed to get the user to check their phone frequently — that is why they have push notifications making a noise or vibration to alert us. And, once we’re in it, the app has been cleverly designed to keep us on our phones by controlling our brain chemistry. Greenfield explains, “When you get a notification, you get a little buzz, ding, or a bell that tells you there’s a reward waiting. The elevation of dopamine from anticipated reward is twice as high as the actual reward itself. The intermittent reinforcements from our internet-based technologies are potentially habit-forming and addictive.”
Health journalist Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, explains how apps manipulate our brain chemistry and behavior. “Instagram has created code that deliberately holds back on showing users ‘likes’ so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible — meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app.” And cookies store our browsing data so that social media sites can display ads we’re more likely to click on and start shopping.
It’s pretty terrifying when you consider the fact that a device that is supposed to support you is actually altering your brain and behavior and its ultimate effect is isolation and less human interaction. What’s the solution?
How to practice mindfulness with your cell phone
We know that the brain is plastic, meaning it has the ability to rewire itself. We can change habits and behaviors over time. Now, I’m not suggesting something as drastic as breaking up with your phone, but I am saying that we could all benefit from being a little more mindful of our phone usage.
Here are a few tips to help you ease the grip of highly addictive apps, which in turn will free up your time and possibly give you a little time back!
Turn off your phone 90 minutes before bedtime, ensuring you do not affect your body’s natural sleep cycle and causing insomnia.
Do not sleep with your phone. The presence of your phone increases the stress hormone cortisol.
Mute notifications on the screen and the app badge, reducing the surge in reward hormones.
Gray out your screen, making it less appealing to pick up.
Use the bedtime function, which automatically puts the phone in “do not disturb” mode overnight, muting calls and text messages.
Don’t respond to emails outside of working hours. If you do, you create the expectation that you’re always available, and you’re more likely to want to respond.
Don’t take your phone out of your bag or pocket when eating. Better still, leave it in another room or in the car in a place that isn’t visible.
Use the driving mode when in the car and try to keep it out of arm’s reach.
Think of alternative ways for you and your family to have fun without technology.
Consider adding limits to how much time you want to spend on your phone. You can keep notes, and some phones allow you to set these limits and kick you out of the app when you exceed the limit.