Picture this: it’s a manic Monday morning, you’ve only just managed to leave in time for your 07:30 lecture, when suddenly you realise with a sinking feeling … you forgot your iPhone.

MEAGAN DILL

Picture this: it’s a manic Monday morning, you’ve only just managed to leave in time for your 07:30 lecture, when suddenly you realise with a sinking feeling … you forgot your iPhone. Do you spend an extra five minutes going back to fetch it and arrive late for the lecture, or do you dare spend an entire day without it? We’d all like to think that we could happily live without smartphones, but the truth is that it actually feels a bit like leaving one of your limbs at home. Could we be addicted to our smartphones? Perdeby investigates.

But first: what exactly is addiction and how does it work? According to an article published on PsychologyToday.com, the concept goes right back to basic survival instinct. The brain naturally functions on a pleasure and reward system. Take, for example, the fundamental human desires to eat, sleep or have sex. Your brain releases the all-powerful pleasure chemical, dopamine, which results in the feeling of enjoyment. This immediate gratification results in the urge to continue such activities, and it effectively aids your survival.

“The inescapable fact is that nature gave us the ability to become hooked because the brain has evolved a reward system, just as it has a pain system,” explains American physiologist and pharmacologist Steven Childers.

But this system can become dangerous when the pleasure receptors respond to something that is not actually essential to our survival. Like, for instance, using your BlackBerry. But is there any proof that smartphone addiction legitimately exists, or is it nothing more than an urban myth?

A survey conducted in 2011 by US-based communications company RingCentral yielded results that show that there may indeed be cause for concern. When respondents were asked what they do first thing in the morning before getting out of bed, 49% answered that they pick up their smartphone (to check, for example, their email or the weather). Only 20% said that they first kiss their significant other (or pet). Collectively, these statistics seem to suggest that in this small, everyday way the majority of people prioritise their smartphone over a living person or animal.

This ties in with an opinion piece published late last year in The New York Times. In researching technological dependency, columnist Martin Lindstrom conducted an experiment in conjunction with a company that specialises in neuromarketing – a new field of marketing that uses scientific means to determine how the subconscious part of the brain reacts to various stimuli. Eight males and eight females between the ages of 18 and 25 partook in the experiment. One result stands out as particularly interesting.

Lindstrom writes: “[We noticed a] flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.”

In light of this, it seems that “addiction” may be the wrong term to use. And if our smartphones are causing us to feel an emotion that is usually reserved for other living beings, this may be an indication that it’s time to re-evaluate our priorities. But what exactly is it that makes us feel this kind of bond with our smartphones?

Michael Matusowsky, a first-year computer engineering student, says, “We’re not addicted to smartphones. We’re addicted to the social networking that comes with one.” Another (similar) hypothesis is that the connection the phone gives us to others is where its appeal lies – if our phones are constantly buzzing with tweets, BBMs, and Facebook notifications, we feel wanted and well-liked. But this becomes rather self-defeating when interacting with others digitally becomes an obstacle to interacting with people in real life. So how can you reach some kind of balance?

One way to curb smartphone use when out with friends is to play the following game: when everyone arrives at the restaurant/bar/club, you all put your phones face down in the centre of the table. Whoever succumbs first to checking their phone has to pick up the bill. Sure, it’s a hefty price to pay, but it does more or less guarantee that the people at the table will actually be talking to each other instead of having their faces buried in their phones. And isn’t that what everyone’s there to do, after all?

Another way to break the habit of constantly checking your phone is to set aside a detox period each day where you switch off your phone and put it in another room – somewhere you won’t be tempted to sneak a peek at it. You could use the time to catch up with a loved one, read a book or take a relaxing bubble bath. Forcing yourself to take a breather from our fast-paced, technology-driven world could prove to be a grounding and stress-relieving activity.

The bottom line when it comes to using smartphones is that although they are convenient in many ways, care should be taken to keep priorities in order. Despite the fact that there’s an application for just about anything you can think of, it’s safe to say that technology will probably never be able to come up with something that truly replaces the power of human touch and company.

Photo: Brad Donald

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