It’s commonplace to observe that every new medium of entertainment is routinely decried by the older generation who claim that it will undermine youthful morals and imperil society at large. This type of criticism was leveled at the Music Hall, at radio, at moving pictures, and finally at television. By and large such criticism proved erroneous.
Today, a few of us are beginning to be concerned about the global obsession with smartphones and the various endlessly distracting apps they harbor. The question is: do we really need to be concerned?
In order to answer this question we need to consider two factors. The first is the nature of the entertainment and the second is the way in which it is consumed.
All entertainment is pleasurable because it stimulates the brain to release a little dopamine, which has (crudely) been described as the primary neurochemical reward mechanism.
From an evolutionary perspective, any behavior that increases the odds of passing on one’s genes is a behavior that is likely to be conserved, and conservation can be promoted via inducing a feeling of pleasure in the organism. As a group primate species we depend on the group for our survival and therefore fitting into the group is essential. Hence we enjoy certain social activities because this is evolution’s way of prompting us to perform them, which results in us being integrated into the group and thus improving our odds of eventually passing on our genes. We are, like all creatures, in a sense nothing more than DNA propagation machines and this fundamental imperative underlies everything we do.
This is why we like to dance together, sing with companions, play games, and just hang out with our friends at the shopping mall. It’s pleasurable to feel we’re part of a group. Our entertainments are devices by means of which our brains are stimulated to release a little dopamine. When we sing or hear music, we feel pleasure. When we dance or watch a performance, we feel pleasure. When we watch a play or a movie we vicariously experience a range of emotions as we empathize with the characters, and this feels pleasurable too. We are evolved to seek these releases of dopamine because during our evolutionary history such releases were triggered by behaviors that were on balance advantageous to our survival and mating prospects.
Unfortunately, our neurochemistry is susceptible to manipulation by more direct means. Consuming alcohol, nicotine, and a wide range of other substances will trigger pleasurable sensations that are frequently more intense than the normal stimulation we receive from performing evolved behaviors. As far back as records permit, we see humans intentionally self-stimulating with a variety of substances. And we see the frequently deleterious results.
All mammals are hardwired to seek out pleasure. In the wild, this is achieved by performing useful behaviors. But in our human-created world we can get bigger and more reliable hits by artificial means. There’s a classic two-lever experiment that illustrates the danger. Put a highly intelligent creature like a rat into a cage and provide two levers for the rat to push. One lever will deliver food, the other a cocaine mixture. The rat has perfect freedom to choose which lever to push and how frequently to push it.
Guess what happens? Every time this experiment has been performed the results have been the same: the rats obsessively keep pressing the cocaine lever and will eventually starve to death, so intense is their desire for dopamine that it over-rides any natural mechanisms for hunger satiation.
Human beings are no different from rats. Just wander into any casino and watch people sitting at slot machines, obsessively feeding the machine and pulling the lever, hoping for the dopamine reward of a row of three symbols and the sound of artificial bells. There have been cases of Chinese gamblers dying as a result of remaining at these machines for thirty-six hours straight with no consumption of food or water. And we have all read stories of drug addicts dying because they prioritized their next hit over drinking and eating.
Back in eighteenth century Britain, society was in the throes of the Great Gin Epidemic. Due to its cheapness, gin became the most popular drink imaginable. The results were predictably catastrophic and it took nearly forty years for various laws and inducements to alter the situation.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Western societies were in the throes of an epidemic of cigarette smoking. The tobacco companies pushed their lethal products onto consumers using every available means at their disposal. It was only decades later as the cancers mounted up that governments realized the terrible cost of permitting tobacco companies to profit by killing their customers.
Today we’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Our hardwired desire for sweet salty fatty foods, which was very adaptive during our evolutionary history when calories were scarce, is exploited by the big food corporations to induce us to eat nutrient-poor but calorie-dense junk. From the McSlop outlet next to Kentucky Fried Cancer on every US Main Street to the diabetes-inducing sodas in their 64-oz bottles, most of the food most people cram down their throats is quite literally unfit for human consumption.
It’s clear from these three examples alone that in general we humans have zero capacity for self-regulation and are incapable of making adequate lifestyle choices in the absence of strong external forces to push us in the direction of less self-harm. We will always prefer the short-term dopamine hit to the longer-term healthy option.
What does this have to do with smartphones and the apps they harbor?
Simply this: when we look at the most addictive and destructive habits we humans form, they are generally solitary. The difference between a family watching TV together and a solitary person staring for hours at their phone is that all semblance of social connection has vanished. In addition there’s no natural cessation to the activity. Whereas a play or a movie or a concert will come to an end, and whereas a family watching TV will stop at bedtime, there’s no obvious point at which we stop interacting with our smartphones. The dopamine hit is purely self-induced at any time we want.
No one could carry a TV set around with them. But everyone was able to carry a bottle of gin or a packet of cigarettes or a bag of cookies. And everyone is able to carry their smartphone with them. So people do, everywhere and at all times. We have become slaves to the tiny glass screen, jumping to respond to its commands like mindless puppets because of the tiny dopamine reward it grants us.
New message on InstaSnap? Gotta look! Gotta respond! Right now!
Can’t fall behind in my likes and comments in case all those people out there whom I’ve never met but count as “friends” think I’m ghosting them and write terrible things about me or, worse yet, don’t “like” my stuff in return!
Stroke, swipe, stroke, swipe….
Who would check their phone and text while driving? Really, who would be stupid enough to do such a lethal thing?
Oh, right: nearly everyone.
Who would take their distraction device to bed with them, so that it can rob them of sleep and leave them feeling even more cloudy than before?
Oh, right: nearly everyone.
Who would spend more time taking selfies than actually experiencing life?
Oh, right: nearly everyone.
Who would follow the latest mindless trend and plank in dangerous places or pour ice over their heads merely because they saw other people doing it on social media?
Oh, right: nearly everyone.
When we step back and look at today’s behaviors triggered by smartphone usage we see all the signs of addiction.
This is why smartphones and the apps they harbor are qualitatively different from previous entertainment options. They induce solitary obsessive repetitive behaviors that distance the user from normal human interactions. And the more distanced one becomes, the more one craves connection — which is then sought through the very device that’s creating the distance in the first place. Thus a damaging feedback loop is established from which the user cannot easily escape.
This is no different from being addicted to gin. The more you indulge your solitary drinking habit the more isolated you become and so the more you drink to console yourself.
The smartphone is today’s gin. And we’re in the middle of an epidemic that is causing enormous social harm. Perhaps it’s time we begin to think about ways to mitigate this harm before it’s too late.