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Part 1: Why You Can’t Stop Looking at Your Phone and What to Do About it

Our Love for Dopamine

By Simran Lavanya SarafPublished 3 years ago 3 min read
Image by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash.

Why can’t we stop picking up our phones? Well, these little devices have us typing, tapping and swiping away because they instantly and simply deliver some of our most basic needs, including pleasure.

There is no doubt that phones provide us with numerous benefits: they are our DJs and cameras, and allow us to connect with loved ones across the globe. However, the issue arises when our phones are more in control of us than we are of them. Often, we pick up our phones with one short task in mind, for example, send Zoe a message on WhatsApp. But soon we find ourselves lightyears away from the actual task at hand, endlessly scrolling through Instagram after receiving a notification about a new like. A lot of our behaviour surrounding phones has become so automatic that we find ourselves doing things that we did not consciously intend to do with our time.

What’s dopamine got to do with it?

Our brains have started to associate picking up our phones with the chance of getting a reward. How does this happen? This is where dopamine comes into play. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has many functions, important in this context are the functions relating to pleasure and learning. This neurotransmitter activates receptors in our brains, which teach us to associate particular actions with rewards. Dopamine excites us and encourages us to take actions to meet our needs and desires. Hence, experiences that trigger their release will be something that we would want to experience again and again.

In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter highlights that tech designers use our thrill of behavioural feedback to encourage us to use their products over and over again. In fact, Catherine Price dedicates a whole chapter to dopamine in How to Break Up with Your Phone. Price effectively explains how apps manipulate our biochemistry through a reward-cycle, in the aptly titled chapter ‘Putting the Dope in Dopamine’.

During my Neuroeconomics module in my master’s program, we looked into the role of dopamine in the prediction of future rewards, which I will explain further. Dopamine neurons signal a reward prediction error. This means that they are activated when there is more reward than predicted. Thus, a spike in dopamine firing is found when we are given a reward that we did not predict. This neurological feature has been used by casinos for their advantage for decades, particularly with slot machines. Not only is this used in gambling, but tech designers also manipulate our brain chemistry through this phenomenon in order to increase the amount of time we spend on our devices and on their apps.

Image by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash.

How do social media apps use this to their advantage?

Some apps are designed to keep you coming back for more positive reinforcement that triggers the release of dopamine. Social media apps are notorious for using this dopamine-driven learning approach to their advantage. Since these apps are usually free, we cannot be the customers. Their customers are advertisers, and our attention is the product.

Dopamine is used as a way to grab and keep our attention. Notifications from social media have been found to be associated with a dopamine release. So, likes are giving us that feel-good sensation. As stated earlier, a spike in dopamine is found when we are given a reward that we did not predict. Social media apps take this into consideration and use a variable reward schedule, where the rewards (i.e., likes) are received at random intervals of time. When rewards are randomly delivered, and if checking for the reward is easy, then we end up checking for it habitually. In turn, this is how dopamine-triggering actions linked with social media develop into a habit as you get stuck in a dopamine-induced loop.

Image by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash.

So, are we doomed?

Not quite! Knowing the science behind why we do things is often the first step to changing those habits. There are several small steps you can take to help cultivate a healthier relationship with your phone, where you are the one in control. In my next article, I will discuss these steps in relation to takeaways from Catherine Price’s wonderful book, How to Break Up with Your Phone.

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About the Creator

Simran Lavanya Saraf

When I'm not oversharing my thoughts on the internet, you will find me devouring chocolate, making good use of my Netflix account, or asking strangers if I can pet their dogs.

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