Why you should care
Americans spend an average of five hours a day on their phones.
The seductive infinity scroll of smartphones has families across America and around the world gathering in their living rooms — not to converse or even to watch TV together, but instead to stare down at their smartphones’ glowing screens and allow themselves to be sucked into the digital abyss.
At a glance, the addiction that people have to their mobile technology seems antisocial. How could turning away from those in your same physical space in favor of a digital world be anything else? But one researcher, Samuel Veissière, an assistant professor in the Culture, Mind and Brain Program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, is making the opposite claim:
People aren’t addicted to mobile tech; they’re addicted to the social interaction that mobile tech enables.
Veissière’s analysis of existing research on the dysfunctional use of mobile technology through an evolutionary lens was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in February. It recognizes that the conventional wisdom — people are addicted to smartphones — does not explain why people are so drawn to that platform.
“If there is addiction to smartphones, it is first and foremost a behavioral addiction rather than an addiction to the devices themselves,” Veissière says. “It is rooted in human evolution and, in particular, in the need to connect with others, to compare ourselves to others, to compete with others and to learn from others.”
He found that the human desire to connect with other people was underlying the most addictive behaviors, a trend he attributed to the evolutionary tendency of the brain to search for the easiest path for accomplishing goals. In this case, that means satisfying a need for social interaction through texting over talking. Even seemingly solitary activities on mobile devices, like gaming or using scheduling apps, resemble social behaviors, Veissière says.
Common Sense Media’s survey of children up to age 8 found a tenfold increase in mobile-device screen time, from about 5 minutes in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017.
But easy does not always equal best. “We lose quality, and we gain in quantity,” Veissière says. “This is exactly what we’re seeing with smartphones. There’s the possibility of hyperconnecting, keeping in touch with more people all the time, but we’re losing the face-to-face interaction. The youngest generation is the loneliest ever and the most depressed ever, probably because they’re seeking avenues for socializing online as opposed to in-person.”
Veissière notes that other researchers disagree with his social interpretation of solo smartphone functions and look for other explanations to understand these aspects of mobile tech. Some experts, such as Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, attribute the allure of smartphones to aspects of their tech design that are purposefully made to keep audiences engaged for as long and as often as possible. Though still rooted in a person’s desire for social interaction, a smartphone’s features tap into the human reward system, leaving people craving another push notification.
Responsible and constructive media use is possible, says Michael Robb, Common Sense Media’s director of research. The key, as young users turn more toward smartphones for their screen times, is to create an environment that promotes healthy media habits.
Co-viewing and sharing appropriate media, establishing device-free times, like dinner, and modeling the desired behavior in front of children are all strategies that can help support what Robb calls a “good media balance.”
Smartphone use has skyrocketed over the past 10 years. Since 2011, the percentage of Americans who own such a device grew from 35 percent to 77 percent, according to a 2018 PEW Research report. Common Sense Media conducted its own survey of children up to age 8 who use mobile devices. Robb says they found a tenfold increase in mobile device screen time, from about 5 minutes in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017.
To better understand why smartphones are so appealing, Veissière plans to produce a more fine-grain analysis of various cellphone functions and their effects on wellbeing, including mood and cognitive performance, by putting people on a low-tech diet without access to the internet. The first step to addiction recovery is recognizing there is a problem. Perhaps new insights into our attraction to mobile phones could eventually push us to look up and put down our devices and maybe even discuss with the people around us the great new Netflix series we just finished viewing.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the former Google design ethicist.