Smartphone Addiction is reaching Pandemic Levels — Here’s How

Stanford students protest outside of Apple HQ.

Smartphone addiction has been increasing over recent years, as apps have learned effective formulas to hack our addiction pathways.

So why does this matter? New studies are showing how we relate to apps, smartphones are keeping us in a constant state of stress that can have some serious consequences on our social lives, anxiety levels, mental health and general well-being. In teens, there are far greater risk factors.

The problem is hear then the use of technology at the intersection of our brain. One way to put the problem is, mobile devices and apps are easily adjustable. Our Brains are not. Currently, the monetization of Tech is putting profits ahead of our well-being.

Scientists aren’t sure if technology is destroying our brains or hurting our attention spans, but there’s increasing evidence the addictive power of apps can disrupt our lives, and even lead to depression. In an era where we’re closing down Facebook accounts and deleting the Instagram app on our phone, people are starting to consider living with technology in more streamlined ways.

This beautifully designed ‘dumb phone’ can only make calls and send texts — and it might be the key to curing our addiction to apps.

For GenX it’s not a serious problem, they didn’t like Millennials grow up with social media or like younger Millennials and GenZ grow up totally immersed in apps, SMS and mobile games. But for younger global citizens, smartphone addiction can become quite a serious situation.

The Attention Economy has Serious Side-Effects

If you’re like me, all day long you’re interrupted by notifications, alerts and cues for your attention on your smartphone.

Like me you probably first check your smartphone as you wake up, you need it to keep track of Emails, SMS from friends, to read the news and see what’s going on with your acquaintances around the world. But all of these interruptions are adding up and it’s taking a toll on our system.

Physiologically all of these constant alerts and primal hacks to our attention are jolting our bodies and hormones into action, turning on our fight or flight responses, making our pulse race, quite literally. These physiological changes — tightening breath, contracting muscles, these are indications of stress. That’s right, being plugged into the digital world constantly is stressing us out and we don’t know what the long-term impacts could be.

Our brain on apps is not likely very pretty. This is your brain on apps, jacked high on dopamine and hypervigilant to repeated injections of the feedback loop. You are stuck, you are in it, you are addicted to your smartphone.

  • You check your smartphone constantly
  • You open multiple apps each multiple times per day
  • You have become hyper-vigilant to any notification or alert as if you had a FOMO that is taking “time” away from your attention spectrum.
  • You are not alone, smartphones are doing this to millions of people around the world.
  • As only 1 in 50 people are super taskers (actually able to multi-task), this means all of these “interruptions” are taking time away from other things — the present, your social environment, most serious work, etc…
  • Product and engineers in Tech are paid big $ to keep you this way, in fact smartphone addiction is getting stronger globally. Big Tech is winning over the hack of our brains.
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

You may not actually be able to finish this article without checking your smartphone. You may not even realize you are doing this.

Here’s What we Know

  • A full 89% of college students now report feeling “phantom” phone vibrations, imagining their phone is summoning them to attention when it hasn’t actually buzzed.
  • 86% of Americans say they check their email and social media accounts “constantly,” and that it’s really stressing them out.

This mobile hypervigilant checking behavior, (MhC) has become so mainstream and so global, we don’t even call it an “addiction”, it’s scarily just the new normal.

If that’s not the start of a kind of technological dystopia, I really don’t know what is. The walled gardens and digital streams of these apps, don’t have to do with reality as we know it, they are divergent from things like work-life balance, global warming or the state of our real-life social network. They pull you in, but they don’t always give you experiences that when added up, contribute to things like productivity, creativity or true social connection.

  • In such a world, we are mistaking social and information feeds on apps as being relevant to our lives.

The Damage is in Repetitive Behaviors

  • Every time we switch tasks, we’re also shooting ourselves up with a dose of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Apps are training us in to be FOMO junkies that “hijack” our brain with streams of information that may not be relevant or even worthwhile to our higher purpose as human beings.

According to research from Statista, in various countries around the world, smartphone users last year spent at least an hour a day, on average, glued to their devices — and often much longer. In Brazil for example, it’s five hours per day. For GenZ its typically far more “addictive” in its occurring then adults. This shows that teens seem to be more vulnerable to how apps and games hijack our attention.

  • The switching puts our thoughtful, reasoning prefrontal cortex to sleep, and kicks up dopamine, our brain’s addiction chemical.
  • This means essentially smartphone addiction, apps and mobile and video games are making us into pleasure drones “high” on digital dopamine.

Over time this can (in some occurrences) hurt our social lives, our grades and work performance and highly impact how we spend our “spare” time, increasing stress hormones and rising our vulnerability to things like obesity & depression.

The Amazing Lack of Social Responsibility

Yet the companies who most profit from this smartphone addiction such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Tencent and other companies will never mention this as a real social issue and nether will typical News or tech publications. Why do you think that is?

  • The Attention economy is big business.
  • Whether you are Apple or Netflix, your entire business model is dependent on people being addicted to your services and you as the leading platform.

Our brains can only process so much information at a time, about 60 bits per second. If we are immersed in an app, or watching a show on Netflix or Disney’s streaming service, it’s game over for most other activities. Multi-tasking while we do it, is not the best.

If Millennials are a bunch of screen addictions, what will GenZ or Alpha cohorts become led even further down the digital dopamine rabbit hole?

With AR and VR on the supposed horizon and smart speaker penetration(20% as of early 2018) hitting mainstream levels in the U.S., the vicious cycles of digital dopamine loops isn’t going away anytime soon.

We’re giving ourselves away to Technology and convenience. As a species there isn’t even a major debate on this, and we’re about ten years into the experiment.

Incredibly, we’ve transition form the rat race into the dopamine asylum and Big Tech is laughing all the way to the bank.

I can write about the robot apocalypse or the hype surrounding AI, augmented reality, and other futuristic tech, but the reality is that we are already way down the digital dopamine funnel. Many of us will never leave for the rest of our lifetime.

Americans aren’t even the most mobile-native, as Chinese consumers are wall more advanced with innovations such as mini-programs that go beyond apps on platforms like WeChat.

Brazil and their party lifestyle stereotype apparently are catching on to smartphone addiction as well. It’s not even just one thing:

  • Mobile games are on the rise
  • Social media addiction still is strong on certain apps
  • GenX still check their Email obsessively
  • New technologies are on the horizon that might be even more addictive and “essential”.

Magic Leap has an outside shot at becoming such a platform with ever new increases in their funding before they even launch. The future of technology is bright, but it’s also a neon light in our lives that’s stealing time away from our relationships, families and old-fashioned face-to-face social interaction.

  • Teens globally are spending less daily time together.
  • Young people have become less physically active globally.

What is worse is that the Facebook, Tinder, Snapchat and Instagrams of the world are getting even more tricky on how to captivate our attention. The science of the addiction is getting stronger as digital dopamine product managers look to squeeze more of our attention through their gamified feedback loops so that their apps become part of the 5–10 apps that we “constantly” check.

I have here outlined some of the reasons smartphone addiction is getting worse. This is also increasing wealth inequality as translating global attention into $dollars for the companies behind these products and digital experiences.