Screen addiction: The Reasons we are so Hooked to our Smartphones

I want to talk a bit about screen addiction. 

The second decade of the 21st century marked a radical change in lifestyle. The digital revolution has entered a high gear and many aspects of our lives have become digital – social life, consumerism, learning, working, leisure, etc. Even in the developing third world, smartphones have become a basic device that is found in almost every pocket. It’s no secret that our culture and society support it and encourage us to stay connected.

But our rapid digital revolution has a price. It’s challenging for us to maintain balanced digital habits. One thing is for sure – we are addicted to screens. In fact, those who are not addicted to screens are in the minority.

Screen addiction is one of the most common addictions, but it receives very little attention and headlines. The reason is that, if we admit the truth, we must realize we need to recalculate our course in light of rapid technological advances and the effects they cause.

Having said that, let’s get started.

What is the definition of screen addiction?

I found out that addiction has a variety of official definitions. In my opinion, specific definitions of addiction to screens or technology are sinful to reality because they tend to focus on extreme cases rather than the broad range that we all experience. For that matter, I adopted what Dr. Gabor Mata wrote in his inspiring book on addiction:

  • Behavior that is compulsive
  • Behavior that is out of control
  • Consistency in using despite knowing it hurts us
  • If the object of addiction is out of reach, there is a strong feeling of discomfort

What would you think if we were to be honest with ourselves – are we addicted or not?

If you have ever lost your phone or stopped using it longer than usual, you have probably experienced some of the above symptoms.

The first step to digital balance and a healthy lifestyle is to admit that we are addicted to screens.

What is it about screens that makes us so addicted?

Having clarified this charged and fascinating topic, let’s move on to what causes screen addiction. Here are some helpful explanations.

Attention economy

It is extremely important to understand the attention economy. Technology uses our attention as a currency. In this economical model, the more Silicon Valley companies are able to capture our attention the more profitable they become.

A whole field of science called “behavioural design” is dedicated to developing products that change human behavior, literally. Many minds and a lot of money are invested every day in discovering how we can stay connected for as long as possible. 

We are subjected to cognitive and psychological manipulations every day.

Do not get me wrong. I am not claiming that there is any malicious intent here. We are just dealing with the same capitalist demon that doesn’t value our welfare. 

On the other hand, I don’t intend to remove responsibility from ourselves when I say that there are forces greater than us attempting to keep us addicted to screens. On the contrary, it is really critical to recognize and acknowledge this elusive truth.

Here is a quote from Tristan Harris, a humane technology advocate whom I greatly admire, to sum up our discussion on the attention economy:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, but that’s not acknowledging that there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I highly recommend a Netflix documentary about The Social Dilemma (you can read a short review I wrote on the topic here).

A few words about Dopamine

As a non-neurobiologist, my review will be factual yet relevant. Since dopamine is often linked to addiction and social networks, I will include it in this review.

There are many neurotransmitters in the brain. These are the substances that transmit information that activates conscious and unconscious actions in our bodies. Dopamine plays an important role in all kinds of significant functions, including attention, thinking, movement, motivation, and mood.

Originally it was thought that dopamine was secreted in the body when one experiences pleasure, however it has since been discovered that it is actually secreted when one expects pleasure. Dopamine helps the brain identify a potential reward and stimulates motivation towards it.

In a similar way to how casinos take advantage of this idea (with slot machines), when we are tempted to enjoy rewards and pleasure at random, we get sucked into a feedback loop where we constantly look for potential rewards.

The term for it is Variable Rewards or Intermittent Reinforcement

This issue is beautifully discussed by Nir Eyal.

Our evolution was outpaced by technology

There has been a quantum leap in technology in the last 20 years in regards to our way of life. If we took a person who lived 20 years ago and dropped him on Earth in 2022, he would probably be overwhelmed by the changes.

Whenever we explore the web, we are exposed to emotional triggers from social media, news sites, and even WhatsApp which never stops buzzing. We are exposed to more information than we could ever contain. Communicating daily with more people than ever before, much more than it is possible for us to maintain in a deep and meaningful way. These are only a few examples.

Our evolution is much slower than that. Our operating system cannot keep up with this dizzying pace. The digital experience is characterized by excess and overflow.

As a result, we experience constant stress. This stress manifests itself in the rise of cortisol levels in the body (stress hormone) even when looking at our phone or just thinking about it.

Instant gratification at your fingertips

People tend to run away from stress and towards the realms of escape and immediate gratification. It’s natural. Nowadays, screens provide us with the desired escape more quickly and efficiently than ever before. In a moment, at any time, we can lose ourselves in the emotional numbness of the screen.

It also weakens our ability to deal with unpleasant (but entirely human) emotions such as boredom, lack of self-confidence, anxiety, guilt, etc. 

Therefore, we lose our ability to resist the temptation to not feel uncomfortable from time to time.

We should learn how to overcome this temptation because it is life itself that we are missing. These are parts of the human experience that are necessary for our growth and development.

We lack the necessary tools

Adding to the arguments I have made so far, we must also acknowledge that we do not have the tools to tackle this challenge. We must acquire them ourselves.

In school, we were not taught how to practice mindfulness, which is essential for regaining control of our attention.

We weren’t taught that looking at screens all day would harm our mental and physical health. We weren’t taught that if we didn’t manage our time, someone else would manage it for us.

To achieve a more balanced, sane life, we need to acknowledge that we lack knowledge and tools, and provide ourselves with opportunities to learn them.

As a conclusion

It is possible to build a new, beneficial, and more balanced relationship with technology by understanding the specific mechanisms contributing to screen addiction.

With practice and changing our way of thinking, we can make substantial changes to our global culture that encourages us to be connected and does not fight for our rights to our digital privacy, freedom, control, and well-being.

We / You can do it.

About The Author

Gilad Peled

Gilad Peled

Hi! I'm Gilad, a passionate writer about Digital Wellness, Holistic Productivity and Biohacking. A proud dad, digital entrepreneur and life-coach. Happy to share the knowledge I picked up along the way.

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