The technology industry needs to think more seriously about device addictions


Mobile programmers have the ability to build software that provides deep layers of penetration to the end user through sophisticated targeted notifications. Consumers with their chosen apps, have hundreds of notifications turned on and thus are brought back to their phones at an alarming frequency.

A recent study shows that many people consult their phone as much as 150 times a day. Everyone is screaming to the consumer and doing whatever they can to get their attention while not considering the long term ramifications of such excessive stimuli.

With the onslaught of sounds and vibrations, consumers are being trained that immediate action is required. With brain receptors being washed in notification happiness, we check back and thus like other addictions, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ and the happiness loop is formed.

The smartphone is increasingly accessible to everyone and culturally it is widely accepted as the standard mode of communication. This makes ‘moderation’ close to impossible.

As the younger generations see their parents, older siblings and friends using their phones, it further cements the idea about our new normal.  Similarly, as silicon valley widely encourages and promotes ‘snack engagement’ type software, as the preferred fundable option, we have billions of dollars behind ideas that are fundamentally disconnecting the most ‘connected’ generation.

Countless studies have been done and continue to connect the dots between phone usage, happiness, satisfaction, anxiety and depression.

ScienceDirect recently published findings correlating WMD’s (wireless mobile devices) time and anxiety, specifically for the millennials.  The study examined dependency of college students to their phones in a very clever way.  While not terribly surprising, it validated students who were heavy phone users, showed much higher rates of anxiety when their phones were taken away for short periods of time: 10-20 minutes.

While it’s still early, neuroscientists are beginning to see similar brain behavior from device addicted brains, reported by MRI scans as they do with other more traditional drug related addictions. A recent study lead by North Korea in Seoul, found strong correlations between GABA reduction in young men who were identified as ‘addicted to their phones’, compared with another sample set of young men who reported no issues with leaving their phones for long periods of time (1 hour or more).  For those, GABA levels were within normal ranges.

More work is required but, correlations between gray matter density in the brain, specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex is smaller with high phone usage according to the study.

Furthermore, the area that controls the ‘fight and flight’ part of the brain, the amygdala, is reporting to be enlarged with continued, excessive use.  It’s the alert part of the brain.  It’s great for keeping you alive when you’re being chased by a tiger but as the amygdala stays active it grows and strengthens.  Issues with insomnia, depression, stress and anxiety are well correlated to an overly active amygdala. And phones, specifically apps, hit that region spot on with excessive use.

As we grow as a culture, especially for newer generations, we need to start asking important questions: ‘how as a species do we begin the education process of device addiction?’ And more importantly, ‘how do we begin taking back control?’

Small, organic ‘unplugged’ movements are starting to take shape. There are events being created as a time for people to get together, hand over their connected devices, including watches, and communicate in the physical world.  Topics surrounding getting unplugged, exploring nature and sometimes even thinking about ways to improve our experience with our connected devices.


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