We’re not addicted to smartphones, we’re addicted to social interaction

Neurobiology of mobile-device habits stems from a healthy human need to socialize, rooted in evolution, McGill researchers find.

Phubbing – Social rules of courtesy for the use of smartphones must be created. Protectora

Justin Dupuis, McGill University 06 Feb 2018

We all know people who, seemingly incapable of living without the bright screen of their phone for more than a few minutes, are constantly texting and checking out what friends are up to on social media.

These are examples of what many consider to be the anti-social behaviour brought on by smartphone addiction, a phenomenon that has garnered media attention in the past few months and led investors and consumers to demand that tech giants address this problem.

But what if we were looking at things the wrong way? Could smartphone addiction be hyper-social, not anti-social?

Professor Samuel Veissière, a cognitive anthropologist who studies the evolution of cognition and culture, explains that the desire to watch and monitor others, but also to be seen and monitored by others, runs deep in our evolutionary past. Humans evolved to be a uniquely social species and require constant input from others to seek a guide for culturally appropriate behaviour. This is also a way for them to find meaning, goals, and a sense of identity.

In a forthcoming study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Samuel Veissière and Moriah Stendel, researchers in McGill Department of Psychiatry, reviewed current literature on dysfunctional use of smart technology through an evolutionary lens, and found that the most addictive smartphone functions all shared a common theme: they tap into the human desire to connect with other people.

Steps to regain control over smartphone addictions
  • Relax and celebrate the fact your ‘addiction’ reflects a normal urge to connect with others!
  • Turn off push notifications and set appropriate times to check your phone intentionally.
  • Create “intentional protocols” with friends, family and work circles to set clear expectations on when to communicate
Healthy urges can become unhealthy addictions

While smartphones harness a normal and healthy need for sociality, Professor Veissière agrees that the pace and scale of hyper-connectivity pushes the brain’s reward system to run on overdrive, which can lead to unhealthy addictions.

“In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (…) the pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theatre of hyper-social monitoring,” the authors write in their paper.

Turning off push notifications and setting up appropriate times to check your phone can go a long way to regain control over smartphone addiction. Research suggests that workplace policies “that prohibit evening and weekend emails” are also important.

“Rather than start regulating the tech companies or the use of these devices, we need to start having a conversation about the appropriate way to use smartphones,” concludes Professor Veissière. “Parents and teachers need to be made aware of how important this is.”

The research is part of an article collection on Cognitive Aspects of Interactive Technology Use: From Computers to Smart Objects and Autonomous Agents

Source McGill University via EurekAlert! AAAS


Hypernatural Monitoring: A Social Rehearsal Account of Smartphone Addiction, Samuel P. L. Veissière and Moriah Stendel. Front. Psychol. 20 February 2018 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00141

The effects of “phubbing” on social interaction, Varoth Chotpitayasunondh Karen M. Douglas. J Appl Soc Psychol. 2018;00:1–13. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12506

How “phubbing” becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone, Varoth Chotpitayasunondh, Karen M.Douglas. Computers in Human Behavior Volume 63, October 2016, Pages 9-18. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.018

Why we fail to understand our smartphone use. Checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behaviour, which is “extremely repetitive” say psychologists. If you check your phone 80 times today, you are likely to repeat this behaviour every day. Lancaster University Youtube May 21, 2018

Also see
How did ignoring people for our smartphones become the norm? Medical Xpress
‘Phubbing’ can threaten our basic human needs, research shows Medical Xpress
Why we fail to understand our smartphone use Lancaster University

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