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Why Am I Hooked to My Smartphone? Answers From Neuroscience

Have you ever wondered why your smartphone is so hard to put down or why you can’t resist reading that incoming text? Why do you suddenly feel vulnerable when you find yourself without your smartphone — a condition described with terms such as “nomophobia” or no-mobile-phone phobia?

Contingent Communication and Brain Development

Psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, MD, can sum up his answer in two words: “contingent communication.” Dr. Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s School of Medicine, defines the term as a “timely and effective response” to the messages that we send out or receive.

The brain is your “interface” between your internal and external worlds, Siegel says, and is thus constantly processing stimuli from within and without. For example, when you were a hungry infant, your brain helped to translate this need into a familiar sound in your parent’s ears: You cried your little lungs out, and if your parents’ communication was “contingent,” they responded quickly and effectively by feeding you. That feedback reinforced your attachment to your parental caregivers.

From this earliest of interactions to later ones, contingent communication is a deeply formative influence in our neurological and psychosocial development. Indeed, by providing immediate feedback to the messages we send out, contingent communication encodes our brains and the neurological processes that govern our interactions with the world around us, according to Siegel.

How Your Phone Factors In

Smartphones and other technological devices can quickly turn addictive because they activate this same neurological reflex: Whenever we receive a timely and effective response to an inquiry or expressed need — for example, responses to our Facebook post immediately begin to stream in, or we receive a gift card for participating in an online survey as soon as we hit “send”— our brain’s internal reward system experiences a pleasurable surge of dopamine. Soon we become attached to our technological devices in a way not so unlike the way an infant becomes attached to his or her parents, who are most likely to answer that hunger cry. Habituation and attachment are thus natural outgrowths of contingent communication.

The statistics around technology use seem to support this idea. Americans check their smartphones an average of 110 times a day, taking them to dinner, the bathroom, and even to the bedroom, according to multiple studies. Those who incessantly check their cellphones for emails, texts, Facebook or weather updates might now represent a majority of Americans. Sixty-six percent of respondents to a survey conducted by U.K.-based technology firm SecurEnvoy say they suffer from nomophophia, and the average American reportedly spends 144 minutes daily on their phone.

Nomophobia or Addiction?

If you’re hooked to your phone, you might be suffering from either “nomophobia” — or a full-blown tech addiction. Researchers at Iowa State University have provided a questionnaire that can help you gauge to what degree you are at risk of nomophobia. (But for a trusted clinical diagnosis, it’s wise to seek the help of an addiction recovery professional.)

A tech addiction might be at play if you experience any of the following symptoms, in which case seeking the help of a professional is recommended:

  • Continuing increase in technology and/or Internet use
  • Feelings of depression or anxiety when not online, playing video games, etc.
  • A tendency to surf the Web much longer than originally planned
  • Continuing technology and/or Internet use despite its having adverse effects on work and family relationships
  • Unsuccessful attempts to curtail use, despite its negative health impacts

Preventing and Reducing Smartphone Dependence

If contingent communication means we’re hard-wired to draw pleasure from using mobile technology, what hope is there for the millions of us who find ourselves wedded to our phone? For starters, knowing the neurological explanation for your compulsive smartphone use can increase your compassion, towards yourself and those around you. You can stop beating yourself up or berating your friend or spouse for constantly checking email or Facebook now that you understand their brain is engaged in a biologically wired process.

And you can take heart knowing that the same way your brain has learned a particular behavior can help it learn new patterns of behavior, based on more constructive forms of contingent communication. Thankfully, your phone isn’t your only source of contingent communication. You can find alternatives that provide more gratifying opportunities for the process. For example, you might consider finding ways to serve others in need — by volunteering at a soup kitchen maybe, or providing one-on-one tutoring. Such activities can be times to take a break from your phone and be intentional in your interactions with another human being, interactions that are themselves rich with contingent communication.

You can also place limits on your daily phone use, then honor these boundaries. If you find yourself having trouble doing so, you might be experiencing a symptom of a tech addiction.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of contingent communication can be good news for those of us hooked to our tech devices. The same way that our brains look for rewards in the form of timely and effective responses can become the vehicle for recovery from an addiction, technology included. You might feel like you’re hooked to your phone, but you’ve never been outsmarted.

There is still hope.

Our licensed addiction experts can help. Call us today for a confidential assessment.

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