Why are people so addicted to their smartphones? Why do they check the phones so often, sometimes compulsively, even when they are not buzzing for attention?
The best-selling book Dopamine Nation has an explanation. American psychiatrist and chief of Stanford's Addiction Medicine Clinic, Professor Anna Lembke, says people check their phones incessantly because they are seeking the small doses of dopamine released in their brains each time they look at the screen.
Dopamine, according to the book, is the most important neurotransmitter involved in addiction and compulsive behaviour.
In the brain's reward pathway, dopamine is released whenever a behaviour is being reinforced.
While some level of dopamine is released by the body all the time, certain activities trigger increases over baseline levels.
The level of dopamine released by an activity is heavily related to how addictive the activity is. The more dopamine is released, the more addictive the activity potentially is.
For example, eating chocolate can result in the body producing 55 per cent more dopamine than normal. Engaging in sex boosts dopamine levels by 100 per cent. Nicotine, 150 per cent. The drug amphetamine unleashes 1,000 per cent more dopamine.
For smartphone use, each time a user sees a "like" on social media, a small amount of dopamine is released. The more "likes", the more dopamine gets released.
When a post goes viral, an addictive wave of dopamine is released, which encourages users to post more and check their accounts more frequently, as they clamour for the next surge of dopamine.
This phenomenon prompted Prof Lembke to write that "the smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. If you haven't met your drug of choice yet, it's coming soon to a website near you".
Interestingly, scientists have found that pleasure and pain are processed in the same location of the brain as part of the reward pathway.
Prof Lembke describes how the brain's reward pathway works like a playground see-saw which toggles between pleasure and pain. The more the see-saw tips to one side and the faster it tips, the more pleasure or pain one feels.
When the see-saw is tipped, the body tries to restore balance and bring the see-saw back to the level position, where it is not preferring either the pleasure or pain state.
When applied to online gaming on a smartphone, while the game is on, the see-saw is tipped in the direction of pleasure. This makes the user want the game to last forever, so that he or she can preserve the dopamine high.
When the game ends, the body starts to cut back on dopamine production as it seeks to restore the level position in the balance. This results in the desire to keep playing or to restart the game, driven by the craving for another shot of dopamine.
With sustained, repeated exposure, the body starts to build up tolerance. Soon, a game is not enough. To get the same amount of dopamine to release, it takes a few games. That is the start down a slippery path towards compulsive behaviour and addiction.
According to the Central Narcotics Bureau, there were 2,812 drug abusers arrested in 2022.
A 2019 survey by digital content delivery company Limelight Networks found that half of Singaporeans cannot bear to part with their mobile phones for even a day, and only 3 per cent would be willing to give up their phones permanently.
While the number of smartphone addicts in Singapore is not known, it is likely that the figure is far higher than the number of drug abusers arrested locally.
WhatsApp, social media, gaming, pornography -- there are myriad potential vices via a common gateway, many sources of dopamine through the same digital hypodermic needle. And a recent report in The Straits Times highlighted the deadly consequences when pedestrians are glued to their phones instead of paying attention to the road.
What can people do about smartphone addiction? Prof Lembke suggests three steps to help turn things around.
Stop using the smartphone for a period of time. Ideally, a period of four weeks of abstinence is recommended because it allows the body's natural dopamine pathways to reset. But if a duration of four weeks is not possible, even refraining from smartphone use for a day yields valuable insights into how dependent you are on it, giving you a fresh perspective of the type of relationship you want to have with your device.
Track how much time is spent on the smartphone and use it mindfully. Try to avoid idle browsing and scrolling through social media to pass the time. With insights gleaned from abstinence from the device, users can experiment with how they can maintain their smartphone usage at levels they are comfortable with.
3. Seek out pain
This recommendation suggests alternative ways to get a dopamine fix. According to research, exercise has been shown to help those who are addicted to stop or cut back on what they are addicted to, when exercise is used as an alternative.
It is normal to dread exercising because of the initial discomfort from moving, especially after a period of sedentary activity.
Pushing through the discomfort results in dopamine being released. Quite different from smartphone-induced dopamine, exercise-induced dopamine tends to endure for hours after a run or a session of high-intensity training. Exercise also helps reset the see-saw balance of dopamine to the pain side, making it easier for individuals to feel pleasure.
Our family has embraced several of these recommendations to help manage our relationships with our smartphones.
We have a no-phone policy during family mealtimes. In addition, we did not allow our kids to own a smartphone until they were in their early teens. Instead, we got them feature phones (which did not support the installation of online apps) when they started their co-curricular activities in primary school.
We did not have the benefit of the wisdom of abstinence at the time, but wanted to delay when our kids were initiated into the smartphone world.
Now that our kids are older, we leave it to them to self-regulate how much device time to have. We continue to encourage them to be mindful about their smartphone usage and not idly spend hours scrolling.
On the topic of pain, evenings are family exercise time. Someone will usually cajole the family into going for a run or pull up an exercise video that we follow along to on our exercise mats. Family exercise is great for bonding and helps to bring balance to the dopamine reward pathways in our brains.
Despite our best efforts, one of our sons confessed that he had been addicted to TikTok some years ago. When he realised how much time he was spending on the app, he decided to delete it to make it more difficult to access the platform's content. He has not reinstalled the app and has become far more mindful about the time he spends on his phone.
I do not expect that our family's battle with smartphone use will ever end. I am sometimes guilty of stepping away from the dining table to respond to a text message or work e-mail, despite our no-phone policy during mealtimes.
When I fall short, I acknowledge my mistake and try to make amends by taking on extra household chores. I make it a point to share candidly about my own struggles, so that the kids know that they are not the only ones grappling with how much they are using their smartphones.
We are not perfect, and the cycle of continuous personal improvement goes on each day.
As a family, our goal is to encourage one another to be engaged with the world instead of being engaged with our phones.
Source: The Straits Times