Why Your Smartphone Might Be Your Best Friend And Worst Enemy At The Same Time.

I panicked on my way to work a few mornings ago, and it wasn’t because I crossed paths with the skunks that are terrorizing my neighborhood.

My phone wasn’t in my pocket – which meant I didn’t have it – and I had to make a quick decision. Should I ease my anxiety by returning home to look for it but throw off my busy schedule for the rest of the day, or choose to spend the whole day without it, risking that it could be lying in a gutter somewhere, cold, alone, and dying. (Cue the sentimental music)

You know that feeling don’t you? The one where losing your phone feels catastrophic. It’s usually followed by a wave of embarrassment and self-chastisement that you got so worked up over something so insignificant in the grand scheme of things? People often come flying (literally) back into my office when their phone has slipped out of their pockets and down the side of my chairs during an appointment. The look of relief when the prodigal phone is found tells me I am not alone in my dependence and anxiety about the role these devices have taken in our lives. Being a child of the 1970’s I feel a little foolish caring so much about something that I never needed for most of my life. It concerns me enough these days to stop and wonder, “how did this sneak up on me in so short a time?”

A couple of months ago I was stranded near the top of a mountain in Costa Rica, with a broken down rental car on a vacation that was taking a rapid turn for the worse. Not only was I able to call for help, but when the rental car company sent a mechanic to help me, I was able to use a translation app to communicate fluently in Spanish, about a seized power steering mechanism. Moments like that remind me of a not-so-long-ago era when my family and I would have had to hike down to the bottom of that mountain, try to locate a phone, try to find someone to help me interpret, and hope that a solution could be found.

At times like those, my Blackberry seems indispensable. I’m sure lots of us have stories of how valuable our various devices have been to us. Smartphones are powerful tools and having it in our pockets makes the world seem much more manageable. It allows us to be more than ourselves. It gives us access to infinite knowledge, resources, and people. It enables us to engage the world with confidence we perhaps didn’t have before. (I was never anxious about driving a car and navigating in a remote part of a country I didn’t speak the language in because I trusted the technology to make me strong and capable)

Isn’t that a good thing – people going out into the world armed with confidence and knowledge and resourcefulness they previously lacked?


….and yet this isn’t the whole story.

Before you swipe me away to read a less Luddite article, please understand I’m not trying to demonize the technology. The long and winding point I’m trying to get to is that for all its merits, the smartphone carries with it some unintended side-effects, most of which we are scarcely aware of, but so desperately need to be conscious of on a consistent basis. Like most things, the smartphone casts a shadow: it has a dark side that is inherently a part of its use. In fact, some of the excellent qualities it offers can also be a great detriment to our well being. To be more concrete: brownies are lovely because they are loaded with sugar and fat and chocolate. But they are potentially habit forming or even a source of destruction in your life if you have them for breakfast every morning because they are loaded with sugar and fat and chocolate. You already knew this about brownies – but perhaps not so much about that trusted six-inch companion you take everywhere with you?

The shadow of the smartphone lies not only in the device but the apps it contains. They were both designed to capture and increasingly dominate one of your most precious resources: your attention.

What many of us fail to recognize is that smartphones employ fundamental principles of animal psychology to condition us in our use of them. We think we’re in charge. We believe we are using them. But the sad news of this blog post is that our phones can quickly begin to control us in subtle ways. They are by design habit forming if not outright addictive. Again, I’m not interested in blaming the technology companies or designers, because it’s our responsibility as thinking people to consider our relationship to these devices and maintain a healthy pattern of interaction. Just as many people can manage habit-forming and potentially addictive substances like alcohol, they can also learn to be judicious in the use of smartphones. But most of us are aware of the potential for danger inherent in liquor. We are not likely nearly so cognizant of the way in which an empowering and seemingly harmless device like a phone has similar potential to affect us negatively and even become destructive.

Those of you unfortunate enough to suffer through undergraduate psychology courses will likely recall learning of endless experiments where rats and pigeons are trained through a process known as operant conditioning, to respond to specific stimuli like lights, sounds, or physical sensations. When a particular behavior is performed, the animals are given a reward, which results in them repeating the action more often in the future. If you’ve ever trained a dog or potty trained a child, you’re familiar with this approach. Now think for a moment about you and your phone. How often does a flashing light, a vibration, or a personalized ringtone invoke a response from you to swipe or push a series of buttons with the hope that it means you got an email from the Nigerian prince who’s going to share his five million dollars with you?

The rewards our smartphones offer us for turning on or logging in are very sophisticated; it’s not just a bit of rat chow, however satisfying that might be. Instead, they promise a diverse range of reinforcers from visual stimulation, to games, to information, to a connection (real or perceived), and even a sense of importance. That little box of joy can seemingly give life a sense of meaning, or at least numb us out of any feelings of meaninglessness.

But it gets worse. The kind of reinforcement these phones offer is what experimental psychologists refer to as “intermittent reinforcement” because the pattern of reward is inconsistent. You won’t get rewarded every time you click, but the possibility of getting to the next “like” on Facebook keeps you coming back. Intermittent reinforcement proves to be the most potent method of eliciting behavior and developing addiction at a behavioral level. Think of a slot machine. It keeps you pulling that stupid lever because at some unpredictable interval you’ll match up three cherry clusters and win a thousand dollars. Your phone works the same way with its delivery of spicy text messages, morally indignant tweets, pictures of your grandchild, or just finding out that bit of trivia about the Brady Bunch you’ve been dying to know for the last thirty-seven seconds.

Once again you might be worried that I’m going to tell you that psychological science is suggesting that you destroy your phone and bury it in the backyard. Quite the contrary, I’m merely suggesting that we all need to have a frank assessment of our relationship with our phones and understand that they need specific boundaries and parameters to keep them in check. Just like most people don’t eat donuts every day, each of us needs limits and rules that guide our use of the technology to keep it’s shadow side well managed.

It starts with acknowledging and naming these attention seducing and captivating aspects of our smartphones.

I tried to think of a practical way I could do this for myself, and what I came up with is this:

Cell Phone Warning

Do warning labels stop people from abusing alcohol or cigarettes? The evidence doesn’t seem to suggest it does. But this label I’ve put on the back of my own phone isn’t intended to treat addiction – we need more significant interventions for that. It primarily serves to remind me of some things I need to be mindful of as just one step in refocusing my attention on the way I’m relating to this handy and cleverly designed device.

A preview of coming attractions…

In Part 2 of this series on the shadowy side of smartphones, I’ll be delving more deeply into how some apps specifically target human needs and desires to hold our attention and sell us stuff. I’ll be getting into the details of my warning label; particularly the risks beyond having our attention held captive.

In Part 3, we’ll move beyond common problematic use, and shift into the actual problem of addiction to smartphones.

In Part 4, I’ll try to wrap this up and talk about other practices and techniques we can use to manage smartphone use and keep our relationship with technology healthier.

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