ADDICTION

KAHIU: Smartphones, dopamine and you: A battle for your time

In Summary
  • Compulsive smartphone use also shares a lot with other behavioural addictions like compulsive gambling.
  • Researchers believe that people who compulsively use their phones may be trying to avoid issues in their lives that feel too complicated to resolve.
Smarphone
Smarphone
Image: COURTESY

How many times have you looked at your phone in the last hour? What about in the last 10 minutes? Better still, how did it feel when you misplaced your phone?

If you have ever misplaced your phone, you may have experienced a mild state of panic until it was found. Most people claim to experience a flavour of anxiety, which makes sense because we spend two to four hours daily tapping and swiping on our devices. Most of us have become so intimately entwined with our digital lives that we sometimes feel our phones vibrating in our pockets even when they are not there.

We are all addicts to some degree. Dr Anna Lembke, a world-leading expert on addiction, calls the smartphone the “modern-day hypodermic needle"; we turn to it for quick hits, seeking attention, validation, and distraction with each swipe, like, and tweet.

This sudden increase in phone usage did not happen overnight. It happened gradually, starting from a tiny molecule in our brains called dopamine.

Here is what happened: When you got your first smartphone, you probably did some things that made you feel good. Think: reconnecting with a childhood friend, reading a nice text from a friend, or getting a notification. All these activities caused the release of dopamine.

Brief relapses, adjustments and withdrawal symptoms are part of a journey toward healthier phone use. Do not expect to get it right immediately. Expect some setbacks, and learn from each experience.

Not every text, post, or picture will deliver the good your brain is looking for. But we are wired to work hard for these dopamine rewards and will continue sifting through the mediocrity to get there. Sometimes, we will even contribute to the reward system ourselves.

So, what do phones have to do with dopamine? Turns out, all notifications we get activate dopamine in our brains, sometimes referred to as the “feelgood” hormone. Rather than giving us pleasure itself, as it is commonly thought, dopamine motivates us to do things that will bring pleasure.

As the brain’s major reward and pleasure neurotransmitter, it makes us feel aroused, motivated and happy. And here is the other thing about dopamine: it quickly metabolises in your brain, leaving you wanting more and more, as soon as possible. So once the impact of the dopamine goes away, your brain will do whatever it takes to get that feeling back, as soon as it can.

While there is nothing inherently addictive about smartphones, the true drivers of our attachments to these devices are the hyper-social environments they provide. Thanks to the likes; smartphones allow us to carry immense social environments in our pockets through every waking moment of our lives.

Compulsive smartphone use also shares a lot with other behavioural addictions like compulsive gambling. Researchers believe that people who compulsively use their phones may be trying to avoid issues in their lives that feel too complicated to resolve.

So, one of the first things to consider is whether there is something deeper bothering you. Resolving the underlying issue could be the key to reducing your anxiety. Consider, illuminating the link between your thoughts, behaviour, and emotions to help change certain patterns.

You could also consider removing time-consuming apps, changing your settings to eliminate notifications and alerts, setting your screen to grayscale to keep it from waking you at night, charging your phone somewhere besides your bedroom, and developing hobbies.

Brief relapses, adjustments and withdrawal symptoms are part of a journey toward healthier phone use. Do not expect to get it right immediately. Expect some setbacks, and learn from each experience.

Mental health advocate. [email protected]

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