The reality of smartphone addiction and how to hack your brain.
In the fast-paced, technology-driven world of today, smartphones have become an indispensable part of our daily lives. With its ability to provide quick access to information, providing means to stay connected with our social circles, and offer us daily entertainment at our fingertips, these devices can be incredibly attaching. However, this attachment may develop a hidden danger, ‘smartphone addiction’. As we delve into this modern-day addiction, we will utilise the various research and insights from the fields of psychology and neurobiology to help elucidate the mechanics of smartphone addiction and equip you readers with practical tips for overcoming it. Let's get started!
Let’s understand smartphone addiction
The “Cognitive behavioural model”, which is a well-known theory in psychology, explains that smartphone addiction is driven by a reinforcement loop. This highlights the fact that our cognitive and behavioural components are reinforced by positive outcomes such as a reward or a reinforcement. For example, after posting content on social media, receiving likes creates a positive feeling of happiness that releases the neurotransmitter Dopamine into your brain. This immediately creates an association in our brains that feeds the connection between using a smartphone and feeling positive emotions. These positive emotions experienced are positive outcomes that act as a reward or a reinforcement. Thus, creating an almost never ending ‘reinforcement loop’, where our brain's cognitive association between using a smartphone and positive outcomes drives the behavioural component into action by using the device. In return, this cycle creates and further strengthens said association, resulting in the not-so-great smartphone addiction. As many psychologists and theorists may explain, this also applies to many other obsessions and to be informed, helps one understand the roots of their addiction and where it might have stemmed from. Usually, breaking an addictive cycle is not always a smooth downhill ride. It is rather challenging and exhausting to break cycles that create a lasting attachment in our brains.
Human brains are wired to ‘feel good’, our bodies are engines that work better when we are less stressed, more relaxed and are at peace. This habitually and involuntarily leads to chasing an activity or behaviour that provides our brain an escape from any negative feelings that may affect our levels of stress, relaxation, and our overall peace. Billieux et al., (2015) classifies ‘disordered mobile phone use’ as a behavioural addiction that causes the brain to crave and depend on a mobile phone for a positive feeling that elevates the overall mood of an individual.
Researchers and scientists draw parallels between disordered mobile phone use and other types of behavioural addictions. As mentioned before, dopamine is the brain's biological and neurological rewarding system that changes an individual’s neurological circuits. This is usually the case because the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a crucial role in bringing in the feeling of pleasure, motivation, and reinforcement. This is often why it is very challenging to break away from habits that provide us with some form of positive feeling, leading to addiction.
Psychology also explains the phenomenon ‘Fear of missing out’ or FOMO, which is expounded to be the fear of not being connected with social circles, informed about events, and experiences. Research conducted by many psychologists in the field strongly conclude that smartphone addiction is linked with the use of social media. I can personally relate to this concern. It's amazing how social media has become such a big part of our lives, bringing people from different backgrounds and cultures together with just a few taps on our devices.
Psychologists have pointed out that the fear of being without a mobile phone, commonly known as "Nomophobia," can also contribute to smartphone addiction. This fear is often rooted in feelings of insecurity that arise from comparing oneself to others. For instance, some people may become fixated on another person's life and feel inadequate or dissatisfied as a result. This can lead to a compulsion to constantly check their smartphone to alleviate those negative emotions. According to research, addictions can often be linked to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and stress. On the other hand, excessive use of smartphones can also lead to stress, isolation, and a decrease in overall well-being for an individual. However, what we should strive to achieve is ‘total wellbeing,’ to reduce the physical, mental and emotional strain on your body.
What healthy alternatives would help YOU in overcoming Smartphone addiction?
Recent psychological studies have introduced the idea of "Digital Detox" to tackle smartphone addiction and is often associated with a more scientific approach called ‘Dopamine detox’. This method involves intentionally limiting or completely avoiding the use of digital devices for a period of time to limit and rewire your brain’s initial stores of dopamine to make sure that your pleasure centres are more stable. The outcome of this detox is said to diminish reliance on smartphones and improve one's overall health.
Psychologists recommend using “Systematic Desensitisation”, a therapeutic technique that has been successful in treating phobias and addictions, to reduce anxiety associated with overcoming phone addiction. This process involves the basic principles of classical conditioning, which gently exposes the individual to a series of triggers that causes the addiction and ultimately eliminates excess phone use. A hierarchy is created once all triggers have been identified with the help of a trained professional or psychologist. The triggers placed at the bottom of the hierarchy will be the easiest to approach and would be less provoking, while the triggers placed at the top of the hierarchy would be the most provoking and difficult to approach. If you plan to get the help of a psychologist, each trigger step in the hierarchy can be paired with a relaxation technique such as a mindfulness ritual. As the individual becomes more comfortable and successfully desensitises lower-level triggers, they will also build a unique coping strategy to help sever the unfathomable link between the smartphone and themselves.
Another widely used technique is “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT),” a well-known evidence-based therapeutic approach psychologists and counsellors use to help individuals with smartphone addictions. The mentioned therapy aims to identify and modify the maladaptive process of thoughts and behaviours to promote positive changes to the individual's overall mental, emotional, and physical well-being. This approach starts with a process that involves cognitive restructuring, moves on to identifying triggers, modifying behaviours to reduce phone usage, teaching coping skills, gradual exposure, and response prevention to face the fear of being disconnected and away from the phone, adequate time management and finally adapting methods to prevent a possible relapse. Research suggests that mindfulness techniques and social support groups provide individuals with the additional encouragement to continue demolishing the addiction created.
Let’s talk about HOW to hack your brain!
As an incoming psychologist, I personally believe that the best way to overcome an addictive behaviour is to replace it with a better alternative. Not only will it be healthier, but it will also help you systematically desensitise yourself from an addictive behaviour by providing you a replacement and thereby tricking your brain into believing that this healthier alternative is an improved version of a poorly made product. This approach is a hybrid mix that consists of behavioural substitution and reinforcement which trains your brain to focus your thoughts on WHY they are a better and healthier alternative, resulting in a similar sense of satisfaction.
In CBT we replace triggers and maladaptive behaviours with healthy and positive alternatives. The exposure to an influential and healthier option can desensitise the need for the initial addictive behaviour, thereby also motivating you to commit to a change that strengthens your lifestyle with a new, stimulating, and healthier boost that you truly will be thankful for as the years pass by. The power of cognitive restructuring, behaviour change and replacing addictive behaviour is a viable option for any individual opting to look for a long-term solution. Feeling healthy mentally, emotionally, and physically starts with training your mind and providing yourself with a challenge to overcome your unhealthy self to become an evolved individual.
A 5-minute solution to fight Smartphone addiction
As I was preparing for a few exams over the past few weeks, it was important that I remained undistracted and away from my phone. As someone who has her phone literally attached to her side, this was somewhat challenging. However, a quick fix that allowed me to overcome this was using an app. Yep! You heard it right, an app. There are many great focus apps that are available on both Android and IOS that can help you boost your productivity and focus on more important tasks that require your attention.
However, I recommend the app Flipd. It is a simple and innovative app that replaces your lock screen with a very basic design and hides all your social media apps to ensure your focus isn't taken away from you. Once you set a time limit to lock your phone, there's no going back, and you'd have enough and more time to focus on getting your screen time scores lower as possible, eventually helping with managing the time you spend on your phone daily. You motivate yourself, you can join study groups and also connect with your friends and share your progress within the app!
Alternatively, you can use the Forest app. This app is quite interesting as it grows a virtual forest the longer you study, but if you open any unauthorised app or take a peek at your notifications your forest will begin to wither away.
To help you get used to this process, I encourage you to incorporate systematic desensitisation, where you train yourself to adapt to the new normal. Not only are these apps great when it comes down to improving your focus and reducing your smartphone usage but it is also great if you’d like to take a break and unwind yourself away from any digital interactions.
True, it is often not easy to trick your brain into believing that every alternative is great, but it is in fact easier to weigh the good over the bad and rewire your brain to decide on the better option over the other. Our reward oriented minds are infinitely more powerful than what meets the eye, and change can start with a simple step in the right direction. Whether it’s replacing your daily coffee stimulant with a healthy cup of cacao or locking your smartphone in a phone safe so that you'd be able to add in some productive hours is always the right way ahead, and never two steps back.
- Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D. J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, 2(2), 156-162.