Are Phones Feeding Addictive Behaviour?

We live in a world with countless distractions. You probably have a device in your pocket, bag, or even your hand right now that is capable of keeping your occupied and going from one social medium to the other. You are always-on and always-connected, and it most likely has changed your mindset and behavior. Who of us can really deny your phone is the first thing you reach for when you wake up? Or it is the last device you check before going to sleep. And in between those two moments, it wouldn’t be too strange to check your phone up to 170 times a day.

Do the math, if you are awake for 14 hours, that’s every 5 minutes once. And it might not be the mobile phone being the culprit, it’s the do with the different apps we want to use. Think of all the various social media apps such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and SnapChat. But it’s also apps that relate to other urges people have, such as selling and buying products and general chat and messaging apps.

With that small, but ever so connected device near to us, we behave like Pavlov trained creatures, reacting to every single buzz, ding and ping the device transmits. There has been plenty of research about why this is so effective. If you aren’t familiar with Pavlov, it’s good to know what his claim to fame was. Pavlov was able to train dogs to associate the sound of a metronome with the subsequent presentation of food. After repeatedly pairing the two, the dogs would salivate at the sound of the metronome. In fact, just the sight of the metronome would lead to salvation. We call this classical conditioning.

The advertising industry uses classical conditioning principles to get us to buy their products. For instance, when they pair beautiful women with a sports car or deodorant, they are trying to get their target audience, in these examples’ men, to associate the vehicle with the excitement elicited by the women. Thus, when the men see (or think about) a sports car or deodorant brand, they will get back into a heightened emotional state subconsciously. The excitement brought by the women is misattributed to the car or deodorant product. The men are unconsciously drawn to purchasing the car to obtain that excitement.

In the case of smartphones and all the buzzes, beeps and pings they can transmit, classical conditioning has found a perfect partner. Smartphones are associated with ways to meet our psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We can connect with other people as well as gain access to endless forms of information, news, knowledge, and entertainment. Because these have been repeatedly paired, the sounds of our smartphones elicit automatic, reflexive responses.

And if you don’t believe that, think of the following. Have you ever wanted to react to someone’s else’s ringtone or message notification even though you knew it wasn’t yours? That’s the conditioning at work.

Smartphones represent a gateway to meet our psychological needs, we are typically in a state of continuous partial attention (if any at all). If we think of our brains as a computer, part of our RAM (random access memory) is allocated to the smartphone. We are thinking about them constantly but usually not consciously. We pay unconscious attention to them, particularly when they buzz, ring, or are just in view. If you ever have lost of smashed your phone, you will know that this attention can turn to dependency.

Some would argue that this dependency on our mobile phones is a form of addictive behavior. The concerning thing is that there seems to have been a rise of addictive behaviors, with, relatively speaking, smartphone addiction not being the worst thing out there.  New to the scene is video game addiction, although researchers disagree how widespread this is and/or just partial to people with addictive personalities. More widely accepted as an addiction disease are classic gambling, drugs, and drinking types.

But just like the classical conditioning parallel of mobile phones, all the other additions show many similarities. Addiction is a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the functioning of the brain and body. The most common symptoms of addiction are severe loss of control, continued use despite serious consequences, preoccupation with using, failed attempts to quit, tolerance, and withdrawal. If left unchecked, it can cause severe damage to families, relationships, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

Addiction can be effectively prevented, treated, and managed by healthcare professionals in combination with family or peer support. It’s highly recommended that people affected by this should seek out professional help. But if that’s one step too far (or too soon), there is no shame in trying self-help resources first. There are plenty of resources online that can help identify there is an issue and point and direct to good first steps to take. You can research how to stop drinking on your own or find out how to create a support network to beat gambling addiction.

This brings this post to the other issue of dealing with addiction (if the disease wasn’t enough already), which is a stigma. Medical professionals have recognized the disease of addiction for decades, but it’s been a long road to acceptance for law enforcement and society. The stigma associated with addiction keeps people from getting the help they need and undermines the effectiveness of treatment and recovery. People living in recovery shouldn’t feel powerless against feelings of shame; there are many ways to fight stigma. Addiction advocates recommend that people who know about addiction talk about the disease in an honest way.

They should demand the same coverage for addiction and mental health treatment that they may receive for other medical conditions.

And here is the real question, has our widespread use of mobile phones made us more susceptible to addictive behavior? There are plenty of indications that this might be the case. What we need to make sure though is that we don’t create a stigma here and make sure it’s always up for debate and conversation.


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