Under the Hood

Smartphone Addiction May Indicate Healthy Urge To Socialize

Look up "anti-social" and you are bound to come across numerous images of people buried in their phones. While our devices have become synonymous with the term, researchers now suggest that we're not addicted to smartphones but are addicted to social interaction. 

In other words, it is known that human beings crave socialization and have an ingrained urge to watch and monitor others and to be seen and monitored by others. The new study, which reviewed literature on the dysfunctional use of smart technology, suggests that "there is nothing inherently addictive about mobile technology," but rather it is "the social expectations and rewards of connecting with other people and seeking to learn from others that induce and sustain addictive relationships with smartphones."

The research highlighted that all the addictive smartphone functions shared a common theme, which is to tap into the human desire to connect with other people. The paper was authored by Samuel Veissière and Moriah Stende, both researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University. 

"There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic," says Professor Veissière, who is a cognitive anthropologist who studies the evolution of cognition and culture. "We’re trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this."

The study, for instance, recommends turning off push notifications. Workplaces have also been encouraged to adopt policies that prohibit emails in the evenings and weekends.

By reviewing literature through an evolutionary lens, researchers were able to highlight that our curiosity for the lives of others and the need for approval always existed, except that it now uses a digital medium. The authors state in the study that there is "nothing abnormal, as such, about seeking self-worth through other people’s point of view. We propose, thus, to think of this urge as fundamentally normal, and anchored in core mechanisms of social cognition that are distinct to our species." 

According to the study, comparing and learning from others is required as it gives us meaning, motivation, purpose, and a sense of identity. It also talked about how social media critics often discuss the psychological effects of the highlight reel, a term referring to how social media users only broadcast the great aspects of their lives, and at times, even exaggerating or faking it.

"Smartphones and mobile technologies are not the root cause of modern distress," the study states.

Nevertheless, Veissière agrees that the brain’s reward system can run on overdrive due to the speed and scale of hyper-connectivity today. Excessive smartphone use can be detrimental to mental health, leading to unhealthy addictions and comparisons that harm self-image instead of improving it, he said.

"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," he said. "Parents and teachers need to be made aware of how important this is."