Why the screens are so addictive

The kind of addiction to screens that was perhaps only suffered by stockbrokers and individuals trading in the stock market a decade ago is suffered today by most of the urban human population. What is worse is, unlike the stock market, it keeps one glued to the screen virtually all the time!

I am talking about smartphones, instant messaging and social media.

One should hardly be surprised by the research that says people are sleeping fewer hours because of smart phones.

Adolescent sleep needs range from 8.5–10 hours per night, with older adolescents requiring less sleep than younger adolescents. On average, however, American adolescents receive between 7.5–8.5 hours of sleep per night, with many sleeping fewer than 6.5 hours on school nights. Cellular phone use is emerging as an important factor that interferes with both sleep quality and quantity, particularly as smartphones become more widely available to teens.

This article in The Guardian, among other things (like how multitasking makes us less efficient), sheds light on why the screens are so addictive.

Because it [texting] is limited in characters, it discourages thoughtful discussion or any level of detail. And the addictive problems are compounded by texting’s hyperimmediacy. Emails take some time to work their way through the internet and they require that you take the step of explicitly opening them. Text messages magically appear on the screen of your phone and demand immediate attention from you. Add to that the social expectation that an unanswered text feels insulting to the sender, and you’ve got a recipe for addiction: you receive a text, and that activates your novelty centres. You respond and feel rewarded for having completed a task (even though that task was entirely unknown to you 15 seconds earlier). Each of those delivers a shot of dopamine as your limbic system cries out “More! More! Give me more!”

In a famous experiment, my McGill colleagues Peter Milner and James Olds, both neuroscientists, placed a small electrode in the brains of rats, in a small structure of the limbic system called the nucleus accumbens. This structure regulates dopamine production and is the region that “lights up” when gamblers win a bet, drug addicts take cocaine, or people have orgasms – Olds and Milner called it the pleasure centre. A lever in the cage allowed the rats to send a small electrical signal directly to their nucleus accumbens. Do you think they liked it? Boy how they did! They liked it so much that they did nothing else. They forgot all about eating and sleeping. Long after they were hungry, they ignored tasty food if they had a chance to press that little chrome bar; they even ignored the opportunity for sex. The rats just pressed the lever over and over again, until they died of starvation and exhaustion. Does that remind you of anything? A 30-year-old man died in Guangzhou (China) after playing video games continuously for three days. Another man died in Daegu (Korea) after playing video games almost continuously for 50 hours, stopped only by his going into cardiac arrest.

Each time we dispatch an email in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something. Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially (in a kind of weird, impersonal cyber way) and get another dollop of reward hormones. But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction.

Now when you find yourself checking your smartphone or computer insanely frequently when you should be doing something important, or sleeping, you should understand what is making you do that.

Oh and before I am misunderstood, I am by no means implying that we couldn’t control it so it is not our fault. It is quite the contrary.

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