Is smartphone addiction actually a problem?

Thomas Wellburn
February 6, 2017

It’s easy to argue that smartphone addiction has gotten out of hand. We’re using our mobile devices more than ever before, with our virtual lives becoming ever more important when compared with our physical ones.

Still, the whole argument about whether smartphone addiction is actually a real condition or something altogether less intense is definitely up for debate, as most people who use their phones on a daily basis would probably argue that the effects are different to that of a conventional ‘addiction’. Still, with mobile-centric apps such as Instagram and Snapchat respectively receiving roughly 400,000,000 hits per day according to Kantar, it raises the question on whether our usage increase is down to simple penetration growth or being unable to detach from our beloved candy bars.

Let’s start off with a bit of a History lesson first and outline the obvious; people have been saying things like this for years. They’ve said it about the internet and they’ve said it about gaming, both of which turned out to be false. In the future, they will no doubt say the same thing about virtual reality too. While there are rare cases of internet and gaming addiction, there’s also numerous success stories about how both technology mediums have helped save somebodies life. People like Ken Worrall, who has Tetraplegia, may spend a lot of time glued to their screens gaming and streaming it to viewers, but it gives them an outlet to express themselves. We spoke to Jim McClellan, a lecturer at the University of Westminster and former internet culture writer for the Guardian, who pretty much confirmed this and more. “It happens with any new form of technology. If you really want to get historical, it’s happened with novels and books too. In the 18th and 19th century there was slight panic about people getting addicted to novels and reading”.

He’s right too. A quick Google search for VR addiction yields a ton of results, with all of the popular websites firing off the same spiel regarding dopamine release and the risk/reward pleasure we get from it. Problem is, we get that from pretty much any task in life including our jobs and relationships. Case in point, is smartphone addiction really a thing?

In a basic sense, you can put internet and smartphone addiction under the same umbrella as the effects essentially roll up into one. Thanks to neuroscience, it’s now possible to understand what happens when people use their mobile devices. Much like smoking, cocaine or anything that effects your dopamine levels, it turns out there’s also a certain pleasure to be had from checking your handset.

‘Nomophobia’ as it’s now officially called, is short for no-mobile-phone phobia and carries its own list of symptoms. They include a feeling of anxiety, panic or desperation anytime you don’t have access to a smartphone/ the battery runs out, detachment from the world around you when using your mobile device, or having to check for notifications at unhealthily regular intervals. The term was coined after a 2010 study by YouGov showed that 53% of mobile phone users in the UK felt anxious when they lost their phone or couldn’t use it because of low battery/ signal issues.

Dopamine is that feel good chemical that our brain releases when something pleasurable happens. With relation to smartphones and technology, this could be anything from getting a like on a comment you posted, to getting a message off that person you really like. The ability to check your phone so quickly and efficiently, combined with the repetitive nature of doing so, is an addicts dream. It’s exactly the same reason that gambling works so well; studies from the University of Cambridge have shown that the act of rolling Blackjack dice or pulling a handle on a slot machine actually increases a person’s interest in the game.

Adding to this is the elusive ‘flow’, which is when your body is running at its optimal peak. During ‘flow’, the brain gets high on a neurochemical cocktail of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin. If you’ve ever become completely engrossed in something for several hours and completely forgotten where the time went, chances are you’ve experienced this phenomenon for yourself.

But is it really an addiction?

From a scientific point of view, very few people actually suffer from true smartphone addiction. The likelihood of getting cold sweats and gnawing pain when you’ve been away from your handset for 24 hours is obviously highly unlikely, but the inevitability for some people to be truly addicted is always there. Real-world cases of actual smartphone addiction are incredibly rare, though they do happen. The majority of these tend to occur in the teenage category which coincidentally, is also the most addicted group. Figures from Ofcom in 2011 revealed that almost half of all UK teenagers owned a smartphone, compared with just 27% of adults.

While adults tend to be generally more careful about social media and its effects, teenagers and young adolescents are altogether more vulnerable to its effects. It’s important to note that a lot of the addictive traits surrounding smartphones isn’t just from the person themselves but rather the design of the software they’re using on it. McClellan goes on to say, “So much money is spent on making those things we see on screen engaging and compelling”.

“It’s important to remember these things have been designed by the best UX designers in the world to be engaging and compelling”.

With teenagers the primary culprit of smartphone addiction, what is the end result for those who could be classified as addicted? Simple. The whole thing is basically a cycle that, like with most physical mediums, will ultimately be outgrown. Unlike an actual drug, there is no real dependency to it, meaning when you roll round to being an adult it’s more than likely you’ll grow out of it and simply ‘mature’. It’s important to remember that drugs kick these chemicals out in much higher doses over a shorter space of time, meaning the potential for addiction is far higher. Ultimately, a lot of the addictive qualities found in smartphones relate to a finding of one’s self and the search for a relevant place in society – be it virtual or physical. McClellan says, “When you’re younger, it’s a little harder to have that strong sense of self and exert that control.

“You’re still trying to learn about things and who your friends are. When you get older, you’re in a better position to make clear decisions about what you want to do and how to spend your time”.

Most of our children are now using social media in some shape and form, so perhaps we should shift focus to the tools at which they have at their disposal rather than simply blaming the smartphone as a whole. The issue goes much deeper than conventional addiction and is a combination of multiple factors, many of which have become a standard part of modern day life.

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