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Weapons of Mass Distraction: How Your Phone Hijacks Your Behaviour

Shannon Harvey

Hello, my name is Shannon and I’m addicted to my phone.

For years I have deluded myself into thinking that I was using the device solely for efficiency, productivity and connectivity, but the realisation that my phone is in charge of me and not the other way around dawned one recent Saturday morning.

It was six in the morning and my four-year-son, who usually wakes early and repeatedly calls out to my husband and I until one of us is persuaded out of bed, instead, quietly crept into our room for a snuggle. As I slowly transitioned from deep sleep into wakefulness, this was a sublime opportunity to savour the moment and to soak in the cozy, cuddly, moment of Saturday-morning-family-togetherness.

But my mind wasn’t there at all. Like the pull of a rip-tide, I was dragged into thinking about emails. I wanted… no needed to reach for my phone beside my bed and check if any of the potential international interviewees I wanted to include in my new film had responded while I was sleeping. It was magnetic. As I snuck into another room to refresh my inbox without my family judging me, I knew I had a problem.

I’m not alone in feeling the magnetic pull of a smartphone. Whether it’s voicemail, text messages, social media, email, instant messaging (or you name it), the apps on our phone have a compulsive seductiveness that draw us in. The American Psychological Association's 2017 Stress in America Report found that 86 percent of Americans say they constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts. The average smartphone user checks for updates 85 times a day. In a 16-hour waking day, that’s every 11.2 minutes.

Whether or not being a “constant checker” constitutes having a full-blown addiction is currently the subject of debate, partly because researchers are still working out a universally accepted definition of smartphone addiction. But at a time when the people who built these technologies are taking radical steps to wean themselves free and banning their loved ones from using them, and when Wired Magazine (which is guided in large part by a belief in technology's capacity to deliver humanity from ruin) is running articles with titles such as “Our Minds Have Been Hijacked By Our Phones,” there’s good reason to take heed of the experts who are convinced that mobile phone usage is possibly the biggest non-drug addiction of the 21st century.

The irony that one of the interviewees I was hoping to hear from that Saturday morning is an expert in addiction behaviour isn’t lost on me. Shortly after the Saturday morning compulsive-phone-checking incident, I travelled to the US to interview Judson Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, where he is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. He spends his time investigating the brain basis of habit and addiction and whether mindfulness can help people overcome them.

Brewer explained that the same brain circuits that make us seek out food, comfort, heat and love (all necessary to ensure the survival of our species), are also triggered when we use the apps on our phone. “We have these ancient brains that haven't quite evolved as quickly as our cellphones have,” Brewer explained. Because of something called operant conditioning (a brain-based learning system that we share with sea slugs and all other animals), our behaviour is largely driven by learning to do things that result in positive outcomes, and learning not do things that result in negative outcomes. This is how habits – both good and bad – come to be.

The apps on our smartphone can essentially hijack this cue-behaviour-reward system. For example, when I have a great idea, this can form a “cue.” When I use my phone to share it on social media, I perform a “behaviour” and when I receive likes, comments and retweets, I receive my “reward”. The more I do this, the more my behaviour gets reinforced and before I know it, I’ve developed an automated habit.

Brewer, who spent his early career treating people with drug dependencies, explained that while many of us tend to think of addiction as something that only relates to smokers, heavy drinkers, or people with chemical drug reliance, addiction is really the extreme end of this reward-based learning behaviour. In fact, his definition of addiction is “continued use despite adverse consequences.” In other words, you’re addicted to something if you keep doing it, despite the fact that it’s bad for you.

I recognise that there are those who think all this tech-addiction-talk is overblown and that in the big scheme of things, the scientific evidence is young. In a piece for The Conversation, one academic wrote, “Obsessively checking our smartphone apps may look like addiction but, for most people, it is reinforced behaviour that could be broken without severe or long-lasting withdrawal effects.” Nevertheless, all this got me thinking about my own relationship with my phone.

I realised that although I’d always thought of smartphone compulsivity as being the problem of younger millennials, I’m just as guilty of constantly checking for missed calls, text messages, emails and other updates. I began considering whether I was missing golden opportunities to savour the very essence of what makes a good life because I was mindlessly buried in my phone? I noticed that I’d wake up in the morning, not quite ready to face the day, so I’d check my phone. A moment of boredom in a lift? Check my phone. Feeling a bit miffed after someone criticised me? Check my phone. Kids being brats? Check my phone. Having trouble constructing a sentence for this blog post? Check my phone.

Awe. The update from my kid's daycare centre tells me that my four-year-old is doing a building project and my one-year-old is covered in paint. So cute….

And there went ten minutes of valuable time I’d allocated for writing today.

Herein lies my point; among the myriad of early warning signs about how smartphone overuse may be affecting our health and wellbeing, evidence suggests that checking our phones obsessively results in significant productivity decline. This is why they’ve earned the ominous nickname WMD – Weapon of Mass Distraction. Unless we take charge of our smartphones, the programmers in Silicon Valley who are being paid to find new and innovative ways to hijack our attention so they can sell us advertising, are going to take charge for us. If we don’t steer the ship of our own mind, they will.

So what to do? It’s not as though I can saunter off to join the neo-Luddites. Nor am I going to throw my phone in the trash cold-turkey. My tiny super-computer allows me to navigate stress-free to any location, to send a quick message when I’m running late, or have a long video conversation with loved ones overseas. I save hours of time by doing my online banking, or ordering a spare part that would once have taken a full day to track down. What’s clear though, is that in the same way we must monitor our diet in an age where junk is normalised and conveniently available, we’re going to need to regulate our smartphone use, and importantly, set the example for our kids.

Next week, I promise to share the steps I’ve taken to treat my smart phone addiction and the simple test you can take to see if you’re in need of treatment too. Stay tuned to your smartphone for my next update.

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