I’m not actually addicted to my phone am I? *Sent from my iPhone*
Me: Don’t look
Phone: *PING* *PING*
Me: Ah crap. Here we go again… *begins incessant scrolling*
Why does my phone instantly take my attention?
There it goes again, that sweet, sweet notification. Eyes dart almost immediately to the lit screen. We could be mid-conversation, but this automatic response almost always halts our face-to-face interactions (even if just for a moment).
Why do we have trouble resisting the urge to check our phones and/or put them down? Feel anxious when we know we’ll lose reception? Or have thoughts of being without our phone cause distress?
Well, many of us have learned that we must depend on our devices (especially our phones) for information, for our jobs and for connection. Therefore, it’s pretty normal to worry or feel panicked if we don’t have access to our phones (plus the coin spent on a smartphone these days would have anyone a little stressed out at the thought of misplacing it)
Let’s talk about the dopamine connection
Basically, our brain contains many pathways that transmit a chemical called dopamine (AKA a feel-good chemical) whenever we experience a rewarding situation.
For many, our social interactions give us that reward, and in today’s day and age, our phones allow us to instantly, and continuously interact with others like never before. Social media Apps (hello Facetime, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok etc…) are readily available to us. Over time, we learn that if we constantly check our phones, we will eventually get our next hit of dopamine.
Basically, we can think of social media Apps as our personal, pocket-sized slot machines
There’s an eery similarity between the behavioural addiction of someone with a gambling addiction and someone with phone overuse, and that is – they both trigger a chemical in our brain that reinforces the compulsive behaviour.
App developers count on this drive to keep us checking our phones. Some Apps even withhold and release positive social reinforcements (AKA “likes” “comments” “tags.”
In psychological terms, this is known as positive intermittent reinforcement – meaning that we don’t know when or if we are going to get our next hit of dopamine. When we can’t predict a pattern, we end up checking our phones more often just in case we get a notification (and this is exactly how slot machines operate!).
The cycle of positive intermittent reinforcement can be problematic when:
- Your phone use no longer brings you joy and instead becomes something you feel basically compelled to use (think of your phone as Darth Vader trying to persuade you to turn to the dark side)
- You feel such significant and persistent distress by your relationship with your phone that it’s actually impacting your daily life
If you’ve nodded along and thought “YES this is me…” It’s possible you have Nomophobia – a type of anxiety that provokes an extreme fear response when you don’t have your phone or are not able to use it.
Disclaimer: Nomophobia is not listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – this is because mental health experts have not yet decided on a formal criterion for this condition. However, it is generally agreed that nomophobia is concerning for our mental health and some experts say that it represents a type of phone dependence or addiction.
So, what are the symptoms?
- Worry, fear or panic when you think you have misplaced your phone or won’t have access to it
- Anxiety and agitation if you have to be away from your phone for a prolonged period
- Panic if you briefly cannot locate your phone
- Irritation, distress, or anxiety when you can’t check your phone
- Rapid heart rate and tightness in your chest
- Increased sweating
- Shallow breaths
- Feeling faint, dizzy, or disoriented
How is nomophobia treated?
If you are significantly distressed by the relationship with your phone and your usage, and you want to chat about it with a professional, you can contact one of our Indigo practitioners. Our therapists might recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which can help you learn how to manage negative thoughts and feelings that come up when you think about not having access to your phone) or Exposure Therapy (which helps you learn to face your fear through gradual exposure to not having your phone) if you experience significant distress or find it difficult to manage necessary tasks.
Remember: Our therapists are here to offer support, help you learn to cope with any issues, and can guide you to other resources if you need.
Tips for home
- Switch your phone to Do Not Disturb at night and leave it charging out of reach before bed: This will help get a night of more restful sleep – and who doesn’t need more of that?
- Try leaving your phone at home for short periods of time – e.g. when you’re leaving the house for a quick grocery run or a walk
- Allocate time away from your devices each day: Try reading, heading outside, or writing a letter instead
- Forget Facetime and encourage more face-to-face time: Invite your loved ones over or out to have in-person interactions. Think picnics, dinners, walks etc
This post was written by @laurabeddoe Provisional psychologist and Indigo’s freelance content creator. If you have any requests or suggestions for blog content, you can get in touch with her here.