Digital addiction: the social cost of constant mobile connection

Many of us check digital devices regularly, but is it interfering with our lives?

Smartphone checking: people’s growing overdependence on digital media is now being taken seriously by psychologists, but ironically it is technology itself which may help us to alleviate the ‘addiction’. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Smartphone checking: people’s growing overdependence on digital media is now being taken seriously by psychologists, but ironically it is technology itself which may help us to alleviate the ‘addiction’. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

 

Many people find themselves spending more time on their smartphone than they wish they did.

However, most other afflicted people actually seem to be engaging with apps, services and various forms of communications.

This reporter is connected to the digital grid; of that, there can be no doubt. But with an email account, a Facebook page and one Twitter feed, this is still fairly old school by modern standards. For all three the notifications facility is switched on. So if new messages arrive, my phone notifies me.

Still there is that temptation to check it, even when there has been no notification. Why? The mini-excitement generated from knowing “you’ve got mail” is reminiscent of how people used to feel when they got real letters in the post. There was always that fantasy that one letter in the bundle might just be a cheque for millions of punts.

A similar feeling – albeit more watered down – takes over when a new email arrives. Slowly peel it open (virtually speaking), like a Willy Wonka chocolate wrapper, only to find that it’s just another Groupon mail.

“We have some very strong habits around a lot of our technology, particularly the cellphone,” says psychologist Prof Art Markman, author of Smart Change.

“Back when I was in college studying introductory psychology, we had to train a rat to press a bar. We rewarded the rat by giving it water. Whenever it went near the side of the cage where the bar was or when it brushed against the bar, you would reward it.

Reinforcement

“Once it finally figured out pressing the bar, the idea was to give it a reward 40-50 per cent of the time in a random way. That would keep the rat busy for a long time.

“There are two other situations in the modern world where we encounter that exact schedule of reinforcement: in casinos and in our cellphone behaviour.

“We look for notifications to see if we have email. In doing so we create a pattern to be rewarded with a new message about half the time we take our phones out. We have trained ourselves to press a bar over and over again. Once we’ve done it enough times, we’re basically no different than a rat in a box. We’ll keep doing it for an awfully long time.”

Social networks such as Facebook play off a basic reward structure.

“It’s in the design of the thing to offer intermittent rewards – whether ‘Likes’, new posts or friend requests – and that variable schedule is rather powerful in driving behaviour,” says Prof Brad Love of the University of Texas in Austin.

“Irregular rewards, according to research, can create behavioural patterns that are tough to counter. This is why, for example, slot machines in casinos are so popular. The brain loves small rewards.”

Overdependence on digital media is being taken seriously by psychologists, in part because of the ways our devices have become so interconnected with necessary activities, such as work and socialising. Even if we wanted to, it would be extremely difficult to cut off all access.

But “addiction” is a weighted term and it would be too simplistic to lump the number of times you check your phone in with alcoholism, substance abuse or gambling.

However, there are some similarities. According to a study by the Council for Research Excellence, people stare at TVs, cellphones and even GPS devices for about eight hours a day. Time magazine did a poll which found that one in four people surveyed checks their phone every 30 minutes.

Habit-forming

Venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers did research which suggested that people checked their phones 150 times a day. “You don’t have the physiological elements you might have with nicotine or alcohol,” says Markman. “But it is habit-forming, and the cravings associated with it are the same as people might have with any desired activity.

“This desire is situational but also temporal – it takes place in time. We schedule in times where if we haven’t checked our phones we might get an ‘email Jones’.”

Many people are happy with their phone use and don’t see it as negative. “We are able to stay in contact with so many more people so easily,” says Prof Alan Smeaton of DCU’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics. “Look at how much more productive I am at work, look at how many friends I now have and am in regular contact with because of Facebook and Snapchat, look at all the people whom I would not normally interact with because they are far away, like my cousins in Australia. We are contacting people outside of our geographical circles. So what’s wrong with that?”

Markman believes there are some deleterious effects.

“If your brain is telling you to check your cellphone and email every 10 minutes, you are disrupting your ability to perform tasks and it becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything for longer periods.”

The other problem is social. “We are a social species, where the ideal form of communication is face to face with a small number of people in real time. We are rapidly replacing this with asynchronous communications with people who are very far from us.”

Ironically, technology itself can alleviate addiction to technology. There are apps that can show you how much you’re using your device. IOS app Moment measures how much you use your iPhone or iPad every day. If you feel usage is too high, daily limits can be set.

Time-saving apps

Other apps perform tasks automatically. Unroll.me consolidates promotional emails into a single digest, saving on email checking time. TripIt syncs your calendar with flight itineraries, avoiding the need to do it manually. Dropbox’s Carousel automatically backs up pictures and deletes them from your phone to save space and time.

These kinds of time-saving apps, however, may not solve the underlying problem.

“Phone usage is not based on the number of tasks we have to complete because if we complete them ‘early’ we just find other tasks,” says Smeaton.

“So if you finish reading and replying to your emails, you’ll go on to Facebook, or send a WhatsApp to somebody or keep doing things until you are called for dinner or the bus arrives. When we get in the zone, we use the devices until the time to stop arrives, not when the tasks are done. Apps or organisers that improve productivity don’t do so in order to give you more non-device time.”

If you want to examine your smartphone behaviour, take this simple Smartphone Abuse test from the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction: http://virtual-addiction.com/smartphone -abuse-test/

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