“This thing is a slot machine!” my friend Kay
 said, looking at her phone sideways as though it’d just revealed itself to be a double-agent. Over the course of a few days and several conversations I’d been chatting with her about some of the impacts of technology (especially smartphone use) on mental health and behavior. Kay had asked to talk with me about her struggles with her phone and requested I share what I know along with anything I could think of that would support her in changing her relationship with her phone. Some of the things Kay had been struggling with included: constant checking of her phone, spending more time on it than she’d like, looking at content in particular apps much longer than she wanted to (even while noticing increased anxiety while viewing content), staying up later than she intended due to phone use, and having less time for other activities that she enjoyed, such as reading. Kay is a seasoned healthcare provider and facts and evidence are a lot more powerful for her than, even her own, anecdotal evidence. But while the research into the impacts of smartphone use is growing, it’s still a new field and rigorous evidence is often scant and correlational. Complicating things is the ubiquity of smartphones; it’s tough to find, or create, a control group of folks who
don’t use a smartphone. Still, there are a number of things we
do know about the way apps are designed and how these design features interact with characteristics of our brains. Some of the things I shared with Kay about how smartphones can cause us to feel hooked may especially impact those with trauma histories and high ACE scores. Let’s take a look at two of these phenomena: variable ratio reinforcement and information foraging.
Variable Ratio Reinforcement
When we can predictably expect that a particular behavior will yield a particular reward, we get a small bit of the neurotransmitter dopamine released in anticipation of the reward. Dopamine isn’t the reward itself but builds anticipation of it and helps us to have goal directed behavior. As it turns out, we have much bigger spikes (by about 400%) in dopamine when we’re not sure if we will get a reward. This spike in dopamine is at its highest when a reward happens 50% of the time and unpredictably and this increase makes it really hard for us to
not go through with that goal directed behavior
. While food is what we typically think of when we talk about rewards and reinforcement, humans find lots of other things rewarding as well. Most salient for our phone use, we are rewarded through novelty and social interaction. When Kay unlocks her phone she might be rewarded with novel information such as an alert from the NYTimes app or an email, or she might be rewarded with a notification from apps with social components such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. Each of these apps also uses variable reinforcement within the app itself. For example, you can never be sure if you will see any “likes” or interactions with a post you’ve made on Instagram at any particular point when you go into the app. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. In talking about this phenomenon with Kay we also discussed some aspects of her personal history that make this anticipatory loop with her phone really challenging. Kay has a significant trauma history with a high ACE score and has been in addiction recovery from alcohol and other substances for close to a decade and she recognizes the addictive quality she feels towards substances when she’s using her phone.
Foraging theory describes how some mammals will behave when seeking food. Essentially, we’ll stay in one area looking for food until we reach a point where finding a new spot takes less energy than continuing to look in the same depleted area, so we move on. This theory might apply to humans “foraging” for information as we’re novelty seeking creatures
. When we’re on our phones or other screen based devices, we often rapidly switch between patches of information. There’s so much information and novelty available online that we might find ourselves struggling to deplete a patch of information before switching to something else. For example, Kay might unlock her phone to read an article but might find herself clicking away from that patch of information, drawn to an embedded link that she also has interest in. This cycle might repeat several times with Kay jumping between different information patches. One obvious impact of this rapid switching is that Kay might not get to read the whole article she originally set out to absorb. But another, more subtle impact is that Kay might experience an uptick in anxiety symptoms as her nervous system is triggered into high activation through both the dopamine response of reward-based behavior but also through the partial and distracted attention that occurs when she rapidly task-switches. Sometimes called “multi-tasking”, this rapid task-switching causes stress and lowers not only our working memory but our abilities to focus. Again, Kay’s trauma-history puts her at greater risk for experiencing these negative impacts as she’s more likely to have anxiety symptoms at baseline when compared to peers with no trauma history. Additionally, she may be more vulnerable to the dopamine driven novelty seeking loop as both someone with a high ACE score and history with addiction.
While these two phenomena don’t cover all of the ways in which smartphones and apps can trigger responses from us, they do help explain some of what Kay identified as problematic. She could better understand her constant phone checking when she connected this behavior to the intermittent reinforcement she receives with this checking and understanding this within the context of her personal history. Additionally, she was able to understand why it is that she feels so compelled to keep staying within her phone, jumping around patches of information, after discussing foraging theory. While this information was helpful, Kay also understood that having information is not the same as using it and wondered what some strategies might be to help her feel more in control and less compulsive with her phone use. Here are some of my favorite strategies that I shared with Kay
First, gather and evaluate data on yourself. Look at how long you are on your phone and which apps you are in the most. This will give you a good baseline understanding so you can make decisions about what you want to do next
Make Phone Free Zones
These could be spaces and/or times that you’d like to use your phone less and see if you can give yourself a break from your phone in these zones. For instance, maybe you’d like to have meal times without being on a screen or maybe certain rooms of your living space, like the bedroom, could be phone free.
Try a Social Media Fast
Have a social media app that feels too compelling to stay away from? Try a break from it for at least 48 hours and see how you feel. Jot down some thoughts and anything you notice about how you feel before, during, and after the fast. You may want to incorporate these fasts regularly to help decrease any negative experiences you’re having with these apps.
Decrease Screen Time Before Bed
The gold standard for mitigating the harmful impact of screens and light before bed is to stay away from screens beginning at least two hours before bedtime. This is often too much of a stretch for most people I talk with so some other ideas are to use a blue-light filter, hold your phone at least 14 inches away from your face, and try not to use screens while you’re actually in bed.
Make Your Phone More Boring
It sounds like a buzzkill but one pretty powerful way to stay out of your phone more is to make it more boring. Here are some ideas:
- Take apps off your phone that you feel compelled to be in more than you’d like or set timers to limit your time on certain apps
- Move icons off of your home screen
- Turn off all notifications
- Put your phone in grayscale mode
Decrease Your Phone Anxiety
Changing some of how we interact with our phones can lower our nervous system activation and help us focus. Taking a couple deep breaths before opening an app can help lower your heart rate and build a pause before a compulsive phone behavior. Practicing single-tasking (instead of multi-tasking) when on screens can lower anxiety and help us focus. Putting phones out of sight and out of the room when trying to focus on a project, task, or hobby can help us focus.
My friend Kay is starting with timers on apps she finds hard to get out of, like Instagram, as well as giving herself some phone free time before bed. I like to remind Kay, and others, that those of us with trauma histories are especially vulnerable to the addictive properties of some of these app designs. While this seems like a personal struggle, there are systemic reasons that smartphone apps are so compelling especially because the business model of smartphone apps are built on an “attention economy”. It will take more than just individuals changing their relationships with their phones to impact these bigger economic forces. However, with a little reflection and practice, I believe all of us can begin to find a better balance with our phones and other screen-based devices.