Look Up and Live
The very same day that kids went back to school across NSW, I discovered that France is going to ban the use of mobile phones in primary and secondary schools starting from September 2018. Admittedly, I found out while doing some late night mindless trawling on Facebook, but it certainly got my attention.
While grappling to come to terms with the logistics of the French achieving such a thing, I suddenly remembered a completely different yet oddly related scenario that happened earlier that day. I was in the car, waiting at traffic lights to turn onto Bondi Road. It’s a busy intersection with a lot of pedestrian traffic. As the lights turned green I started to go. Then, from out of nowhere, a pedestrian who clearly hadn’t seen the little red ‘don’t cross’ man meandered on to the road, jaywalking style, while looking down at their phone, seemingly oblivious to surrounding traffic. The common thread suddenly dawned on me… Addiction.
In the traditional or perhaps more widely known sense, one tends to consider addiction in relation to a dependency on chemically based things like alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine and the like. In real terms though, addiction relates more to behaviour, i.e. the person who is exposed to something changes behaviour to seek the experience. Once addicted, the person can find it difficult to stop engaging in that behaviour, and withdrawing from the behaviour sometimes brings on physical and/or emotional consequences. However, in more recent times the notion of addiction has had to cast a wider net to include the internet and its related technologies.
A few facts: Australian males unlock their phones on average 46 times a day, with Aussie women not far behind at 42 times a day, the research suggesting Australia gets the gold medal here. Furthermore, on average we spend 2-3 hours a day on apps. That daily average is just general web surfing and social media apps and doesn’t include texting, streaming or – God forbid – actually making a call. Instead of arguing the pros and cons of smart devices, let’s look a bit more into addiction.
Think of three things that give you pleasure. Okay, I’ve come up with red wine, surfing and coffee. There’s nothing wrong with any of these. Now comes the cruel irony: the more you do or consume something you enjoy, the more likely you are to want to do it, because it feels good. All of this sounds fair enough, but if the continuation of the activity or consumption reaches a level that is compulsive and starts to interfere with responsibilities such as health, work or relationships, then there may be an addiction.
So, how does this relate to our phone? Let’s go back to our jaywalker, who was deep in the matrix while dangerously crossing the road. Well, it turns out the same ‘pathway to craving’ that you might get from chocolate, shopping and even sex, is exactly the same pleasure pathway that leads us to check our phone. Every time we get a ‘like’ on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or even a good old-fashioned text message, it makes us feel good. In other words, the craving becomes a ‘learned emotional response’ and has the potential to become addictive. For our jaywalker, and other people who have potentially developed an addiction, the reality is they may not even be aware that their behaviour is causing problems for themselves and others.
For better or worse, social media is here to stay, and the addictions to it are still socially acceptable and even encouraged in some ways. This is why the decision of the French to ban phones at school seems so bold, especially when – for young people at least – the online world is part of their real world. It is mainly the adults who feel kids are online too much and need protecting, but the reality is that it applies to all of us. Addiction is a complex problem that involves biological, psychological and social factors, and the cause is not always as simple as a search for pleasure.
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to weaning yourself off your device. If you’re trying to give up, craving in the absence of cues decreases quickly after quitting. In other words, by removing yourself from the situation, you’re more likely to quit. Just like the person trying to stop drinking will keep out of the pub, if you feel your phone is getting the better of you, try turning it off and putting it in another room, you might surprise yourself.