I Was Addicted To My Smartphone, Are You?

Admit it: As soon as you get up from your computer, the first thing you do when sitting back down is check your email. Just like the first thing you do when you get up in the morning (and sometimes even while you're still in bed) is check your phone. Notifications rule our lives.

For me, there were a few signs that I needed to get a handle on my smartphone addiction. Signs like: 

  • My phone started loading slower from having too many apps running and continual notifications popping up.
  • When asked to print a photo for my son’s preschool class, I couldn’t find a single picture of him I hadn’t taken on my phone (and could easily print). You can read the full story of what happened here.
  • When I almost left home without my wallet (and driver’s license!) because I knew I could rely on my phone for all my payments and transactions.
  • When quality time with my husband started to mean sitting side by side on our devices.
  • When I attended a wedding where everyone spent so much sharing the festivities online that it was hard to hold a face-to-face conversation.

In one of my favorite psychology courses at Harvard, we learned about something called a Skinner Box. A Skinner Box is a type of chamber that allows you to study the behavior of a small animal. In one experiment with the Skinner Box, we looked at the effects of giving small animals a reward at a random time versus a predictable time. When mice could predictably press a lever and out came food, they quickly learned only to press the lever when hungry.

But something interesting happened with the other group when the reward was randomly given. Those mice would literally keep pressing the lever until they died. When the scientists studied the brains of these mice, they found that during the random occurrences of getting a “surprise reward,” dopamine levels in the brain would rise – almost like doing a hit of drugs – and thus, the mice were actually growing addicted to pressing the lever in hopes of a hit.

And really, aren’t our mobile phones the same sort of thing? We don’t know when we’re going to get a new text message, a new email, a new Retweet, or a new Facebook message. These little bursts of communication are our own little form of “random rewards,” and we're growing addicted to continually looking at it at all times.

Here are some tips for regaining control over your smartphone: 

  • Get the phone out of the bedroom and family room! Send your last email of the night and leave your phone in your office or on your kitchen table. Unwind from the day with a book, movie or your significant other. If you have to have it in your living space, at least place it on a dresser where you can’t mindlessly reach it from the bed or couch.
  • Think twice before you share. Thinking twice saves your followers from a constant stream of pointless posts, and saves you from notifications every time someone likes or retweets. Posting a little less often gives you an attractive air of mystery, too.
  • Keep your devices on silent after work hours. When you are home making dinner and relaxing, you don’t need to be buzzed at every time anything happens on your phone. By keeping it on silent, you might even pleasantly forget it’s there.
  • Don’t check it when you’re with other people. If you are in the same room having a conversation with any other human being, refrain from checking your phone. The text can wait. The updates can wait. It’s pretty hard to feel valued when the person you are conversing with has their nose in their phone.
  • Use your phone as a tool, not entertainment. When walking from place to place, watching TV, waiting for the bill to come, commuting in the morning, try and hold on mindlessly checking your social media on your phone because you’re bored. Enjoy being in the world, and look around to see what’s going on!

When did you know you needed to unplug? What tips have helped you do it?

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