By Hilda Burke
Irish people check their phones on average 57 times a day. Hilda Burke investigates a very modern addiction.
The Irish have always had a special relationship with their phones. As a teenager in Ireland in the ’90s, decades before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, I managed to fritter away hours on the phone to my friends every evening. As a nation we took to mobiles with gusto, the common opener no longer being “hi”, “how are you, boy?” or “howaya” (depending on what part of the country you were from), but instead “where are ya?”
Suddenly we could be anywhere we wanted but still speak to our loved ones. Smartphones, however, changed everything. Most of us rarely actually “speak” to anyone on the phone anymore — instead, we rely on chat or social media apps to keep in touch.
Our smartphone use is prodigious, outstripping that of most of our European counterparts. Did you know that Irish people check their phones 57 times per day? That’s 40% more than the European average.
The proportion of those checking their phone more than 100 times per day in Ireland is double the European average (16 % versus 8%). In addition, 56% of Irish smartphone users think they use their phones too much versus just 39% in Britain.
It’s clear we’ve got a problem in regulating our phone use. Irish parents often complain about their kids “always” being on the phone but from what I see in restaurants, hotels and bars across Ireland, it’s a trans-generational phenomenon.
Smartphone use is growing strongly in the 65-plus age bracket and it’s common to see grandparents, parents and grandkids all uniformly “connected” yet disconnected from one another.
So what is it about our smartphones that make them so addictive? Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, offers a clue. Whenever we receive an instant response to a message or an Instagram post “like”, we will likely feel a surge of pleasure and reward, suggesting that the neurotransmitter receptors in the brain’s reward centre are releasing dopamine, making us feel good. If the behaviour triggering this reward is repeated —posting pictures, swiping right on Tinder, sending instant messages — dopamine levels may rise even higher and our brains send the message that this is a good activity, keep doing it!
Dopamine is necessary for survival, and it has served a valuable evolutionary purpose for the human race. Through the pleasurable release of dopamine, our ancestors got rewarded for identifying an attractive mate with whom to procreate (ensuring they passed their genes on), finding food, forming social bonds, and receiving recognition in their communities.
As a species, we learned to repeat those activities again and again, thus reinforcing them and helping us to survive and prosper. The challenge with smartphones is that we’re potentially overwhelmed, whether it’s with images of attractive potential mates or tasty things to eat, and so we find it more difficult to discern what’s necessary and nurturing for us and what’s not.
This dopamine reward system evolved in the face of scarcity thousands of years ago when we might have had to travel long distances to find food or a mate. But, now, our brains are bombarded with so many potential sources of dopamine that we need increasingly greater hits from the pleasure sources located in our smartphones as our usage develops.
This addictive tendency can be easily identified and even quantified by certain social media apps; for example, when you first signed up to Instagram or Facebook and started posting pictures, perhaps you were happy with 15-20 likes, but after a while, anything less than 50 seemed disappointing.
So you post more, share more, sacrificing more of your personal time and space to get the same hit.
Inability to focus and be attentive: Even just having our phones near us and switched off has been shown to negatively affect our ability to focus. This was underlined by a piece of research carried out by Nottingham Trent and Würzburg universities in 2017. Researchers asked participants to perform a concentration test in four different scenarios: with their smartphone in their pocket, on their desk, locked away in a drawer, and in another room.
Test results were lowest when the smartphone was on the desk, but with every additional layer of distance between participants and their smartphones, test performance increased. Overall, test results were 26% higher when phones were removed from the room.
Not only do our phones distract us when we’re trying to focus on work or study but also when we’re with friends or family.
It’s clear we’re paying a high price for our availability. We are everywhere but nowhere properly. Phone use, digital distraction, lack of attentiveness — these are perennial topics in my couples work. I sometimes wonder if the phone hasn’t replaced the “other woman/man” as the top relationship threat.
Not being able to switch off: Just as important, or even more important, than being able to focus is the ability to switch off completely. Think of the last time you were winding down and relaxing – maybe you were watching your favourite TV show or movie or even reading a book or magazine.
Were you just doing that or were you also googling something you read or saw, messaging a friend about it or checking twitter, while simultaneously perhaps keeping an eye on work email via your phone?
Attempting to multitask in this way throws many of us into fight-or-flight mode. Faced with an avalanche of work emails, news alerts, and personal chat streams, we’re constantly deciding which to leave and which to tackle, all of which takes a toll, increasing the level of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies.
When University of California Irvine researchers measured the heart rates of employees with and without constant access to office email, they found that those who received a steady stream of messages stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant email access did less multitasking and were less stressed.
Email is obviously just one form of distraction but think of how many more stimuli our smartphones are offering up to us that could be raising our cortisol even when we’re supposedly “doing nothing”?
Stifled creativity: Fallow periods of doing nothing are also essential for nurturing our creativity. Most of my ideas for this book came to me while I was well away from my laptop and smartphone, and often when my reference books were gathering sand at the bottom of my suitcase. Wandering aimlessly through the park with my dog, gazing out of a train window, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations while on the bus was when many of my ideas came to me.
I’m not alone. One of the most eminent scientists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, attributed much of his success to “daydreaming” while doing nothing, saying: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Unfortunately, many of us no longer allow ourselves these potentially creative periods of daydreaming and mind-wandering.
Sedentary lifestyles: Despite their capacity to track our steps, link to other digital devices, and give us precise data on our physical activity, our smartphones are likely to make us more sedentary and less fit.
A 2013 study of 300 college students by the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at Kent State University identified a negative relationship between cellphone use and cardiorespiratory fitness. The researchers found that in comparison to low-frequency smartphone users, high-frequency users were more likely to forgo opportunities for physically active pursuits in favour of far more sedentary smartphone-based activities with a resultant negative impact on their weight and level of fitness.
They concluded smartphones had a similar but even greater sedentary effect than TV and computers owing to the fact that they “fit in our pockets and purses and are with us wherever we go”. Thus, they provide an ever-present invitation to “sit and play”.
There has been an enormous pushback on tech corporations of late, and with good reason. They have invested billions in research and development to make their devices and apps stickier, more “addictive”, so that many of us cannot bear to be without them.
Ramsay Brown, COO of the aptly named Dopamine Labs, a company that develops and delivers an application programming interface (API) that enables developers to reinforce users for their applications (i.e. make their apps “stickier”), commented:
We have two powerful tools to defend against getting “juiced” by the tech companies and whoever else is purveying their goods and services at us through the portal of our devices: our freedom of choice and our ability to change. These two qualities together have formed the cornerstone of my workbook’s narrative.
‘The Phone Addiction Workbook’ by Hilda Burke is published by Ulysses Press