I recently got a call from an old friend who moved to San Francisco. Unlike the many car-trapped commuters trudging along the city’s traffic-clogged roads, my friend is able to take the BART metro rail into work every day—about an hour’s ride. When he first began this routine, I commented, “It must be nice to be able to look at the sites on the way to your office.” I imagined my friend sitting back, relaxing, and looking out the window, taking in the ever-changing outdoor urban landscape before his eyes. Instead, my friend’s voice perked up as he replied: “Yes! It’s such a relief to be able to look at my phone and check my messages without having to worry about a crash.” The image I’d held of my friend was quickly replaced by the more common reality: His nose pointed down toward his smartphone, eagerly clicking through the “sites” stored in this addictively powerful device. I can’t say I was surprised by the communication breakdown: After all, it feels good to give in to distraction. In fact, it feels obsessively good.
Part of my mission as a psychiatrist to help my patients ease emotional pain, end aloneness, and find self-love, is to explore their interactions and engagements with the world and to pinpoint the ways in which they hold themselves back from living out their full potential. Often, the greatest challenge is to help them become aware of destructive patterns and habits that are put in place or cultivated to help distract them from the issues within themselves they absolutely don’t want to face. By becoming more aware of these distractions, my patients can begin to achieve true satisfaction and understanding. I want the same for you, reader: but we have to admit that sometimes the greatest problems are the ones right under our nose, nearly too obvious to see.
Consider the following headlines: A June 29 headline in MSNBC quoted a popular columnist who claimed that quitting Twitter was “like quitting smoking.” A week earlier, New York Magazine published a piece entitled: “Snapchat’s New Map Feature Is the Best Social-Media Time-Waster in Months”. In fact, the end of June marked the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone–the smartphone that by all accounts changed the way we engage with both each other and the world. A stereotypical headline of this news cycle?: “How The iPhone Colonized Our World”.
The media’s strong language symbolizes what we all intuitively sense about our relationships to our phones: We’re addicted to them. This isn’t an issue of willpower, like some may assume—this is a chemical impulse that has been implanted within us by phones and apps built to capitalize on getting our attention. The act of checking your phone is far more similar than many of us realize to the act of pulling a lever on a slot machine: in both cases, we feel a rush of dopamine. The temptation of “winning” (e.g. receiving a notification) keeps us coming back for more and more of that chemical sensation. In psychology, this is known as “Intermittent Variable Rewards”, which states that addictiveness is maximized when the rate of the reward is most variable. This is the reason why slot machines make more money than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined, and the reason why the average person checks their phone over 150 times a day.
We get addicted to things that make us feel good. But when tech companies capitalize on our propensity for a momentary high—for instance, by lighting up our phone when we receive a message, or making that delicious “ping” sound, or any number of other ways phones immediately yet irregularly notify us of a new message—it becomes endlessly more difficult to draw ourselves away from the distraction.
What would happen if the next time your phone made that “ping” sound, you took ten seconds to reflect upon what’s happening inside your brain? What would happen if you took twenty seconds, perhaps even closing your eyes, to consider what lies behind the excitement of opening up a message? Are you fearful of what might occur?
Addiction feels good but the high never lasts. It’s my goal to help my patients cultivate a steadier feeling of satisfaction. It takes work, but as you’ll learn in the coming weeks in this series, that work is of critical importance.