Mindfulness, Addiction & Technology: Heal Your Mind & Keep Your Smartphone

Nomophobia: The fear of being away from, or completely without your smartphone. Sound familiar? I winced when I first heard this term in a discussion about smartphone addiction because of how strongly I can identify with this. While ‘nomophobia’ has yet to work its way into official scientific vernacular, awareness of this issue has fast-tracked this term into everyday usage.

Psychology Today goes into some detail about rising rates of nomophobia, and it makes a lot of sense. Our smartphones, with increasingly ubiquitous data access (why do I have a 4G connection 3 miles down the Colorado Trail?), make us feel like we have superpowers. Who doesn’t want access to the world’s information at their fingertips? Consciously or not, so many of us have agreed to outsource significant chunks of our mental capacity to this little object. And the more we outsource, the more terrifying the idea of being without this technology becomes.

What is addiction?

Talking about addiction is never something we face lightheartedly. As much as we have all begun to casually sling around the term “smartphone addiction,” more often than not, when it comes to ourselves we avoid thinking in such heavy terms. It’s easy to admit to using your device a little too much or to talk about how important you feel it is to disconnect from technology, but applying this understanding to one’s daily life is a different matter.

Addiction has been redefined continuously, but considering how effectively most societies handle the issue, it seems that a lot of the ideas around the topic are a little off base. One of the most corroborated and well-vetted understandings of addiction comes from the rat example. In this TED talk, journalist Johann Hari tells about a piece of research conducted in the 1970s that has come to be known as the rat park study. Very simply, if you take a rat and put it in a cage with two water options, one clean, and one laced with heroin, it will invariably choose the drugged water and overdose quite quickly. Conversely, if you put a rat in a cage with the same two options, but this time the cage is designed as a rat’s paradise—with toys, food, other rats, etc.—the rats almost never touch the drugged water.

What this tells us is that addiction is essentially connection, bonding. As social creatures, we need authentic and meaningful connections to be mentally and physically healthy. When there is something in the way of these connections, such as mental illness, social ostracization, or really anything that can isolate you from this that essential connection, we search for something else to bond to.

This idea is proven by the case study of Portugal who, turning these concepts into legislature, went from one of the most addiction affected countries in Europe to one of the least. Reinvesting the money they were spending on the war on drugs into a cultural reprogramming, they turned the disdainful vernacular of the “junkie” into that of “the addiction afflicted.” Addicts were given small business loans, and the shame around the problem was dissolved. The results were unprecedented. Connection is essential for health, yet somehow is very often ignored at the points where it should be given the most attention.

Addiction & Technology

So what does all this dark talk of addiction have to do with that device in your pocket? While this picture of addiction might seem pretty disproportionate to something as simple as your smartphone, the dopamine triggers built into many of our favorite apps are reprogramming our brains. In fact, the new vocabulary of “web 2.0” and the “attention economy” is heavily focused on doing anything possible to snag even the smallest bit of your attention. New foundational wisdom in the world of advertising plays to the fact that people now have tiny attention spans, and thusly exacerbates the problem.

Good design in anything “tech,” whether it be a social media app, a video game, or an advertising campaign, is very simply something that is built to take as much of your attention as possible. That’s the new baseline, the industry’s best practice, as it were. And of course, there’s the all too easy to forget idiom “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” Former Facebook president Sean Parker explains that the core goal of the platform is to consume “as much of your time and conscious attention as possible” in an article published by the Guardian in March.

The Role of Dopamine

In the same article, Sean Parker explains that Facebook uses notifications, or rather the social incentive they imply, to give you a little hit of dopamine. Now, this molecule has definitely caused quite a stir over the last few years and is fairly misunderstood. After all, neuroscience isn’t an especially easily understood body of knowledge. Though dopamine is a main character in memory, risk versus reward calculations, addiction, and attention, in this context, it is a significant actor in the reward centers of the brain. Very simply, dopamine equals the promise of reward, not the reward itself. As it is explained in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, dopamine has a carrot and a stick. The carrot is the promise of the reward, while the stick is the anxiety that prods us to chase that reward. She proceeds to explain that this idea applies to research on those who crave chocolate. When shown images of chocolate, the chocolate “addicts” actually exhibited a startle response.

While fantasizing about chocolate is all well and good, the same chemical process is responsible for all levels of addiction. Not because dopamine is addictive, but because in the same way it ensured our ancestors were motivated to reproduce and find food, it inspires action in us. Now to be clear, I am not trying to frame the addictive properties of modern advertising as consciously malevolent. They came into being just as anything else is summoned from the right combinations of information, incentives, and action. That being said, the potential effects of neuromarketing can be severe.

The hazards of smartphone addiction

  • Executive function: This function of your frontal lobe controls focus, organization, working memory, and so on. It has been shown that there is a link between media-multitasking and decreased working memory and academic performance in adolescents.
  • Instant gratification: In a study recording the habits of new smartphone users, an increase in “immediacy orientation” was shown after only 3 months of use, held against a control group that showed no change.
  • Memory + knowledge: Recalling information is essential for encoding long-term memory. When we turn to Google instead of exercising recall, our brain fails to exercise this essential function, we begin to “learn and remember less from our experiences” according to a paper published by National Center for Biotechnical Research.
  • Head hanging: Have you seen the TED talk on posture and mental health? Not only is the “smartphone posture” linked to a number of mental issues, it also could be tied to effects of bone and muscle development.

The above outlines only a few of the quickly expanding list of concerns. This article is designed to advocate for awareness, not to play on alarmist sentiment. There is a lot more that could be discussed here but for the moment I can start by simply advocating that we all learn about these hazards.

All that being said, smart devices are far from being intrinsically negative things. They are, after all, just objects. The trick is to learn how to use these superpower-giving gadgets, and to avoid letting them use you. While Google, Youtube, or Facebook can be your friend, Google Adwords, Youtube instant play, and Facebook notifications…not so much. Combatting some of the negative effects your tech could be having on you is—more than anything—just a matter of awareness.

How to Maintain Mindfulness & Keep Your Smartphone

  • Turn off notifications: Of the tips listed, this is probably the easiest. Though I can empathize with the concern of those who don’t want to miss out, turning off these little dopamine-inducing pings can do wonders. It certainly doesn’t have to be an absolute decision either. Turning off all notifications, then working backward to decide which ones are really meaningful to you and your life can be a great place to start.
  • Specify usage time: Another pretty straightforward way of ensuring that you can have time for deep work each day is simply just choosing “turn off” for certain periods each day. Maybe instead of sleeping with your phone, keep it elsewhere so that you can proceed through your morning routine before tuning into other people’s agendas. There are also myriad apps that will lock certain applications or your phone altogether. This one is just a matter of self-knowledge and finding the balance for your life and schedule.
  • Do a tech-fast: Going a little farther with it, taking chunks of time where you have no access to your smartphone or tablet altogether can be incredibly beneficial. While this can be a tricky thing, testing your creativity, exercising your recall abilities, and refining the kind of control you have over your daily routine can be an invaluable tool. Think of this as more of an informational exercise than something you have to do continuously. It’s a chance to learn about your own habits.
  • Meditate: I left this one for last simply because it is likely the single most useful aid to the underpinning theme beneath all of this: awareness. This panacea of mental health and cognitive function couldn’t be more suited to the new challenges created by smartphone-addicted culture. The root of most of these detrimental effects of smartphone usage is the way they appeal to our monkey brain, the part of us that works subconsciously to keep us alive and well. Increased awareness of our own interactions and thoughts, paired with the mentally restorative benefits of meditation, adds another item to the list of reasons that it’s not a bad idea to pick this up as a daily habit.

What it really comes down to is having enough understanding of the problem to decide for yourself how you want to handle it. It really is up to you and what you value, what kind of life you want to lead. Are you choosing that life? To some degree, tuning into the massive economic engine that is the age of silicon is a “buyer beware” activity, but everything we do carries risk.

The discussion of how we will coexist with the inevitably increasing sophistication of technology has become the pivotal conversation of our time. We need to be asking ourselves “What kind of relationship do we want to have with, not just our smartphones, but also each other, and ourselves?” Technology is an inherently neutral thing, for this moment, and where it takes us depends entirely upon whether or not we decide to consciously choose where it takes us.