There is no shortage of studies claiming that we are addicted to our cell phones. But is it truly an addiction or is it something else? Sharon Begley in her recent book Can’t.Just.Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions says that rather than an addiction, we have a cell phone compulsion and that compulsion is a result of our brains working exactly as they should.
Begley makes a compelling case that Internet addiction is really not an addiction. One of the key criterions for an addiction is that it is initially intensely pleasurable. People overdose when they have built up such a tolerance that, in search of the high, they consume (or engage in) higher doses of their addictive substance (or behavior). For the vast majority of us, checking our cell phones does not produce a high. But it does calm our nerves.
However, compulsively checking our cell phones doesn’t quite qualify as an obsessive-compulsive disorder either. OCD occurs when someone with a perfectly functioning mind is coping with a dysfunctional brain. Their brain is misfiring, telling them that if they only do this ritual, it will alleviate their intense sense of anxiety. People with OCD are quite aware that they have OCD. They are also aware that their behavior is irrational. For them OCD is an uninvited guest, and many sufferers would very much like for the guest to leave.
Our relationship with our smartphones, or more specifically Internet browsing and social media, is a bit more complicated than merely addiction or OCD. We both love and hate our technology. Usually getting on Facebook or Twitter is relatively dull, but there are occasions when you read a funny joke, or come across a good article, or a friend has extra tickets to a concert. These moments, although rare, are part of the reason why we keep coming back for more.
In the video game and gambling world, it is these same moments that lead us to play for hours on end. Just as we are motivated to keep playing for the occasional power up, item, or jackpot, we scroll through the endless feed for these intermitted or variable rewards. It is digital excavation and when we unexpectedly find something we get a dopamine kick that is just good enough to make it moderately exciting.
Intermitted and variable rewards are only part of the equation for why we compulsively check our smartphones. The other part of the equation is Fear of Missing Out or FoMO. This is where the anxiety part comes in. It is the part of your brain that is afraid everyone has shared this life-changing story or joke or clip, and because you are not online, you are missing out. And since checking your cell phone takes very little time and effort, it is easier to check it than to worry. As Begley points out, “Our brains want more, and our thumbs oblige. Anxiety that we might miss such treasures in the sea of dross drives compulsive Internet use”.
When our Internet use turns into a compulsion, it isn’t because our brains are misfiring or because we get some kind of high off of it. It is our brains looking for a coping mechanism. It has nothing to do with a broken brain or a pathological disorder. As Begley points out, it is a symptom, a response, to the actual problem.
What is the actual problem? Existential angst.
Website and app designers intentionally make their products to tap into our insecurities. In a previous article, I discussed the kind of psychological manipulation tools that app and web designers use to keep us hooked on their sites. (See “Seven Deadly Sins of Social Media”). According to Begley,
“By making us feel we are always connected to the world, [smartphones] alleviate the anxiety that otherwise floods into us from feeling alone and untethered”.
She cites a study in which college students were asked to abstain from their cell phones, computers, and other media for twenty-four hours and then to describe their experience. Their descriptions had all of the hallmarks of an anxiety-induced compulsion. They described themselves as jittery, frantically craving, and miserable. Some of the students couldn’t last for the whole time.
People like Tristan Harris believe web and app designers should be held accountable for their part in psychologically manipulating users. Begley, who interviewed several web designers, points toward a deeper, more personal issue. She says that it is not Internet use or checking social media that is compulsive. “Instead, the compulsion is to avoid feeling lonely, bored, or out of the loop”.
Many people, including the college students in the study, report feeling like they do not exist when they are not connected. This creates a profound anxiety that stems from a sense of meaninglessness in the face of one’s mortality. It is not just a fear of missing out on the latest celebrity gossip.
Begley provides a compelling case for labeling our desperate need to check our cell phones as a compulsion rather than an addiction, and importantly, it is a compulsion of a perfectly healthy brain, not one that has mis-firing signals. She does not address some of the consequences of her perspective, such as medicating attention deficit when ADD is not the actual cause of distractibility. Additionally, one motivation for compulsive checking might have to do with a kind of boredom or deep malaise in which a person wishes to disengage with life. Begley only touches on this, but other writers have written more extensively about this kind of intentional distraction.
In Part 2, we will take a deeper look at a different perspective that says that, at least in some cases, there are some people who become addicted to technology.
Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer with advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics. She writes on the intersection of science, culture, and technology.