During a talk on ‘Healthy Living’ I asked the audience whether they knew how to switch off their phones. I was met with looks of confusion and anxiety. ‘You’re not going to ask us to switch this off for the entire talk?’ a young man asked. ‘Isn’t it enough if I set it to silent mode?’
The question was driven by a phenomenon we call FOMO – fear of missing out. What if something happens that everyone knows about and I don’t – will I look stupid, will I become a pariah?
The fear of being abandoned, of being pushed out, makes us check our phones repeatedly – often to the detriment of real social connections with physical people in our lives. What if someone needs to get in touch and I am not available instantly?
Small children desperate for their parents’ attention while mum and dad are entirely absorbed by their little screens, are becoming a common sight.
Three or four people around a table in a café, each focussing on their phone or smartwatch in silence, is now the norm. This is called ‘phubbing’ – phone snubbing another person.
As with any addictive behaviour, someone who benefits from our addiction exploits a simple mechanic that we have been equipped with since the dawn of time – our brain’s reward system. If a behaviour leads to a reward, we repeat it more frequently.
In terms of evolution, this was useful: if we ate an unknown fruit and were rewarded with sweetness and more energy, our memory created a little card that read ‘red fruit: picking and eating it feels good, do more often’.
However, when behaviourist B.F. Skinner looked into the principle of Positive Reinforcement in the late 1940s, he discovered that pigeons, who were rewarded with a grain every time they picked on a particular lever, made a big effort to keep picking.
However, pigeons who sometimes did and sometimes did not get the reward, increased their effort and worked even harder.
Social media platforms have exploited this by creating like buttons, push notifications etc. At times, your post will be liked by many people, at other times you might only get one like, and that was from your granny.
Let us be clear – the time spent on your gadget is a commodity, which earns certain companies a lot of money in advertisements and subscription fees. As a consequence, these companies hired behavioural psychologists who helped to make the designs of their rewards more addictive.
Every time you see a notification that someone liked a post, your brain releases dopamine. Your memory creates a card that reads ‘looking at my phone feels good, do more often’. But no matter how much we love a behaviour, eventually we get tired, which leads to decision fatigue.
This is exploited further, for example by automatically starting the next episode in a series. We would have to make an active effort to stop this action, so it is easier to go with it. Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings famously said: “Our biggest competitor is sleep.”
Algorithms on apps such as TikTok actively punish users for not engaging enough. The more you watch, the more you follow and like, the more you comment, the more content you create, the more people get to watch your videos.
I have worked with clients who felt exhausted with the amount of time spent on maintaining their social media streaks.
In addition to this, our view of ourselves also heavily relies on the feedback of others. Online trolls, cyber-bullies, and unrealistic expectations created by face-app manipulated images can all lead to low self-esteem, social anxiety, depression, and even self-harm and suicide.
We simply cannot compete with humans in virtual reality. Coming away from this and engaging only with real people for a while, readjusts this view of ourselves compared to others.
How do you know if you are addicted to the use of digital technology? Well, addictions are defined by three stages:
- A craving to carry out the action
- Having to repeat the action more frequently and losing control over how often we act on it
- Repeating the behaviour even though it has negative consequences
If you recognise that you might have a problem with digital media overuse, it might be time for a detox.
• Remove all widgets from your home screen that invite you to use social media
• Change the colour scheme of the mobile to black and white
• Change the alert setting to priority only
• Buy a wrist watch and an alarm clock
• Set a specific time to check emails and texts
• Challenge yourself to increasing amounts of time without digital media
And yes, there are apps to help you reduce screen time, too, such as Freedom, ZenScreen or ScreenTime.
Come and re-join us flawed humans in the real world. It’s lovely out here.
Diana Armstrong , Psychologist , Roodlane Medical (part of HCA Healthcare UK)