Smartphone ownership is so ubiquitous in the modern world that these devices have become a nearly non-negotiable part of daily life. Whether it’s our personal, professional, financial and even spiritual lives, having information, access, and notifications on hand is both an accepted and expected part of existence. Imagining a world where we wake up tomorrow and didn’t have this technology on hand is almost inconceivable; in other words, for many people there is simply no going back.
Or is there? As we live through the era of peak smartphone, it’s worth asking if our attitude towards this life-changing piece of technology will always remain the way it is today. Science is telling us more and more that the cognitive reaction we have to our smartphones is not dissimilar to addiction to other pleasurable things, such as stimulants or sex. That is, our brain gets pleasure cues from every ping and notification—they do, after all, make us feel important—and these constant cues hardwire us to crave our smartphone even more. As an article in Psychology Today put it, “With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google. It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.”
When you consider the addictive nature of an item as ubiquitous as a smartphone, something else comes to mind: cigarettes. After all, there was a time when smoking in offices, airplanes, and even hospitals was not questioned, as the damaging effects of nicotine and secondhand smoke were less understood. Gradually, smoking became more and more stigmatized, to the point where it is not okay to subject someone to secondhand smoke in a public place. Today, smoking rates have declined significantly, and some countries have even outlawed any advertising or branding whatsoever on cigarette packs.
As the addictive properties of smartphone technology—thanks to those dopamine loops—becomes more and more known thanks to increased scientific studies, some predict that we could see a similar backlash to ubiquitous mobile technology. A new study that investigated the “cognitive cost” of constant smartphone access points to this. After conducting two experiments, the study found “that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence.”
Indeed, as studies like this become more and more prevalent, an emphasis on personal responsibility and moderation when it comes to smartphone use is likely to come into focus. However, in order for the deleterious impact of this “brain drain” to really take effect, social policy norms will have to change too. This means requiring technology companies to design products differently, or making smartphone usage less acceptable in every single area of common life,such as schools, for example.
While individual habits will have to change before the political will for this to happen is present, it’s not hard to imagine that down the line. After all, we already have internet disabling services such as Freedom and “do not disturb” settings on our phones, which shows that the consumer demand for limiting tech’s presence in our lives is there, if not hugely widespread.