The Science Behind: Cell phone addiction


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Talia Zitner

It’s no secret that teens have a cell phone obsession. I’m definitely guilty of this myself. I probably send 1,000 Snapchats every day. There’s something about that rush I get when a notification pops up on my screen. If you’re anything like me, these Yondr bags really have you in your feelings. To some, they may feel like an unfair punishment for students using—or not using—their phones in class, but others may welcome the break from distraction and the opportunity to unplug. Yondr bags might not be Wilson students’ preferred solution to the problem, but they are giving us interesting information about how teens interact with technology. Are we truly addicted to our cell phones?

You can have an addiction to a multitude of things. An addiction is a “brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance abuse despite harmful consequences,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. This means that, despite knowing the negative effects of a substance, the user can’t help but consume it. This might sound familiar to you if you’ve ever gotten a notification and felt like you had to check or respond to it immediately. When you do check it, you might get a really good feeling, like satisfaction or gratification. If you don’t check it, you might feel a craving or strong urge to do so. These are symptoms of addiction. While cell phone usage isn’t nearly as severe as hard drug use or drinking excessively, it can still be unhealthy.

There’s a reason why we find our phones so appealing: dopamine. This chemical is a messenger between brain cells, and relates to how we move, eat, and regulate mood. Dopamine also helps us focus, and rewards us when we focus on something that we deem worthy of our attention—in this case, our phones. This might explain the “high” you feel when you check your phone or get a new notification. It’s a system of reward and reinforcement. The more you check your phone, the more dopamine flows through your brain, and the better you feel. You might also get this same feeling from exercise, using certain drugs, or listening to music.

So, if dopamine is such a good thing, why don’t we want it all the time? If your body is used to having rushes of dopamine all the time, a lack of it can leave your body going through withdrawal. You can experience a state called “anhedonia” when you have a lack of dopamine in your body. This is a state in which a person or animal loses interest in the activities they used to enjoy. They no longer feel motivated to do those activities. This is one of the proposed negative impacts of cell phone usage. As teens use their phones more and more, they withdraw from the things that they used to do, such as playing sports or hanging out with friends. This can be dangerous and isolating.

Yondr bags may not be all that popular, but they could teach us how to take a break from our phones every once in a while. If you’re interested in decreasing your cell phone usage, you can try to start by replacing the urge to use your phone with other actions. This could be going outside, working out, or just walking around. Limiting the amount of times per week you post on social media or the amount of times per day you check your phone can also help. Apps like Offtime and Moment aim to track the user’s cell phone usage, and filters apps to help the user disengage from their phone. Wilson isn’t a phone-free zone (yet), so it’s okay to indulge in a text message or the occasional Snapchat between classes. Just don’t let your phone pull you away from the things you love. •