Remember the old, pre-smartphone days? Remember having to find a pay phone and making sure you had a quarter in your pocket to make the call? Or having to wait for the TV news to get the weather forecast? What about when the only way you could play a video game at home was to connect a giant console to your TV? And then there was making a trip to the bank to pay bills. Remember when the only way to contact your favourite pop star was to write a letter, fold it up, put it into an envelope, buy a stamp, put it in the mail, then wait months for any kind of acknowledgement? Waiting in line for concert tickets is a task we’d like to forget. And having to buy an expensive camera to take high-quality photographs was no fun, either. Remember having to go to the library to find an atlas when you wanted to see a map of Hawaii? And making trips to the video store to rent your favourite movie?
These days, you can do all of those things and more with a few clicks of the thumb. It’s kind of hard to remember those pre-smartphone days at this point. Smartphones have become such an essential part of our lives that we spend, on average, four hours a day staring at those little touch screens. Having that much computing power in such a small package is such a miracle of modern science, and there’s no doubt that they’ve made so many parts of our lives much more convenient.
But do we really need to spend four hours a day on them? And that’s just an average. Some people spend even more time than that. Consider people who commute on public transit and spend two to three hours per day on their phones while on trains or busses. That’s a lot of time on its own, but then they look at it at breakfast for a bit, then at lunch, maybe a little bathroom screen time (let’s not kid ourselves, we all do it), then another hour before bed. It really adds up.
A brief history of the smartphone’s brief history
Sometimes it seems like we’ve had smartphones forever, but the iPhone has only been around since 2007, and that’s what really revolutionized and popularized those little miracles. The iPhone is just barely a teenager. Meanwhile, the first smartphone was unveiled back in 1992: IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator. That makes it a full-on Millennial. It had a touchscreen, an address book, and a calendar. You could send emails and faxes, and you could even sketch on it with a stylus. But it would’ve been tough to spend four hours a day on the Simon even if you wanted to, with its one-hour battery life.
Is it possible, though, that that one-hour battery life might be better for us? Is it possible that smartphones can actually have adverse effects on our wellbeing? And we’re not just talking about walking into a car door while checking the ‘gram.
Why can’t you put your smartphone down?
Smartphones are addictive. That seems fairly obvious, even without looking at studies and hard evidence. When you aren’t staring at your phone, take a look around and you’re sure to find many other people who are. But there’s also legitimate science behind this.
Many of the apps on your smartphone are intentionally designed to be addictive. They’re programmed to trigger a dopamine release. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical. It’s produced by our brains and releases when we have pleasurable experiences, including when we connect with people. Dopamine rewards us and motivates us to want to enjoy those experiences over and over again to once again earn that dopamine reward. That compulsion is an addiction.
Many apps directly target this dopamine release by rewarding you with likes, favourites and notifications. When many people start to feel bored, they’ll pick up their phone, consciously or subconsciously hoping for that dopamine hit provided by those social connections and notifications. And when we don’t get it, the anticipation only builds for when it finally comes.
A pocket-sized stress box
But dopamine isn’t the only potentially damaging thing darting around in your body thanks to your smartphone. There’s also the stress factor caused by the release of the hormone cortisol, which can do physical damage to your body. Cortisol exists to help us when we feel threatened, and it causes increased blood pressure and heart rate. But it can also be released when we feel emotionally stressed – and we all know smartphones can cause emotional stress. Just think of all the anxiety your smartphone can cause:
- We feel obliged to be available around the clock to friends, family and work
- Checking in on the 24-hour, instantaneous news cycle
- Worrying about and dealing with nasty comments from social media trolls
- Reading this post and having the irony dawn upon you that your smartphone’s cortisol release is dangerous, but your smartphone’s dopamine release can make you too addicted to use your smartphone any less
As Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, says, “Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress.” We’re talking about heart attack, stroke, dementia, high blood pressure, infertility, depression and more – all can be made worse by stress.
Smartphone use can cause aches, pains and twitches, too
We’re even at the point where, in some cases, smartphones are triggering our brains to feel things that aren’t really happening. These are called “phantom” buzzes, where you think you’re feeling a smartphone notification vibration, when you never actually received such a notification.
There are real physical effects of smartphone overuse, too. There are repetitive strain injuries like “text neck,” “text claw,” and “cell phone elbow.” And you can even have twice the risk for brain cancer when you stare at your phone for half an hour a day over 10 years.
How to use your smartphone less
So, what can we do to counteract the nasty effects of smartphone overuse? The obvious answer is to disconnect from your phone at least a little bit. Don’t give in to that constant temptation, that fear of missing out. After all, if you miss out on the next hot meme or Aunt Sally’s latest post about her cat, what are you really missing?
Here are some ways to ease into your smartphone disconnect and make it stick:
- Limit your notifications and disable them from any apps where they’re not absolutely necessary.
- Schedule your smartphone time so you only check it, say, once an hour for a minute at a time. Start with small goals if that’s easier for you.
- Use apps to your advantage. Some apps and phone operating systems will help you monitor and limit your time.
- Hide distracting apps. Is Twitter too toxic for you? Move it off your home page and hide it in a folder, so it’s more difficult to access.
- Charge your phone in another room when you go to bed, so you’re not tempted to check it at bedtime.
- Exercise more and don’t bring your phone with you. Physical activity can give you a much healthier dopamine rush!
- Read an actual physical book. It can be easier on the eyes than reading on your phone, tablet, or e-reader.
We’re not suggesting you trash your smartphone entirely. Like we said, they’re little miracles that make so many aspects of modern life more convenient and just plain fun. But, like any kind of potentially addictive activity, from gambling to shopping, it’s best done in moderation or in limited doses. The best advice is to not only limit your time on your smartphone, but take that extra time and do something healthy and active. Get out of that virtual world and into a more active real world.
The New York Times, “Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer,” April 24, 2019.
TextRequest.com, “The History and Evolution of the Smartphone: 1992-2018,” August 28, 2018.
Harvard University, Science in the News, “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time,” May 1, 2018.
MobileHCI’18, “Toward “JOMO”: The Joy of Missing Out and the Freedom of Disconnecting,” September 3-6, 2018.
Huffpost, “10 Ways To Disconnect From Your Phone And Actually Enjoy Your Summer,” July 12, 2016.
Healthline, “10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally,” May 10, 2018.