Next time you are in public, look around. What do you see? I would confidently bet money on the fact that you are going to see one thing, and that is necks straining and hands grasping these little black boxes we call iPhones. At a restaurant, you will see a couple sitting right next to each other, but worlds apart. You can see a group of friends “hanging out,” which today often means sitting in the same room as each swipe on their own devices. You can now see children who are barely able to wobble on their own two feet knowing exactly how to open an iPhone — or any other smartphone — and how to start swiping. The first time I saw the little girl I babysit, who was not even 1 year old yet, get ahold of my phone, I was shocked. The ease and comfort in which she handled the phone were surprising as she could barely even walk yet. iPhones, which only entered into existence in 2007, have come to essentially control the world. The power we give technology over our lives is unparalleled and serves an instrumentally large role in our lives — from how we act, to how we socialize with others to how we even think.
My uncle calls iPhones “enslavement devices” — 21st-century enslavement devices. The more I think about it, the more I think he’s right. What is the first thing most people reach for in the morning? Our phone. What is the thing we grab as we are running for the bathroom? Our phone. Smartphones are the devices we set our alarms on, what we use to go from point A to point B. It’s the device we use to reach a friend, post a picture, decide what we’re eating, get our news, cash a check and read our emails on. This little black box we can always find in the palm of our hands actually has 100,000 times more processing power than the computer that landed man on the moon 50 years ago. That’s a crazy statistic to think about, and demonstrates the sheer power that these little boxes possess. It is not surprising then that 60 percent of college students report being addicted to their smartphones. My dad always jokes that my phone is actually glued to my hand, and if it is not in my hand, it is usually within arm’s reach.
Smartphone addiction goes hand in hand with social media addiction. The Addiction Center has reported that 5 to 10 percent of Americans are addicted to social media. While at first 10 percent does not seem like a huge number, when you look at the population of the United States, that means about 33 million people have an addiction to social media. However, it is not much of a surprise that people are addicted to smartphones as well as social media when you look at the actual mechanics and goals behind these platforms. Social media usage actually releases dopamine and produces the same neural circuitry as other addictions such as gambling and drugs. When we get likes, shares or retweets on these social media platforms, it actually triggers a chemical reaction in our brains that drugs like cocaine stimulate. The “reward” we get from social media usage only perpetuates a dangerous cycle. In addition, the reward center in teenagers’ brains is especially receptive, further explaining why teens, in particular, seem to not be able to put down their smartphones for even a minute.
My distaste for excessive social media usage was exacerbated when I watched the documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, an exposé on the true nature of social media. This documentary had such an impact because it incorporated the testimony of top executives from platforms such as Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter who were essentially ashamed of the beast they had created and felt it was time to come forward and reveal the damage they had done. They explained the hidden agenda and goals of these platforms, like creating algorithms to make their sites irresistible and keep people coming back for more — to exploit consumers for monetary gain. As referenced in a review of the film from The New York Times, “Anna Lembke, an addiction expert at Stanford University, explains that these companies exploit the brain’s evolutionary need for interpersonal connection.” This technology was built specifically to manipulate our minds and is indeed terrifying.
In reality, it is not our fault that we have fallen into this trap of addiction, as the product was designed specifically for that purpose. The far-reaching negative effects of these devices are great — lack of sleep, lack of social skills and interaction, inability to focus on even small tasks, increased stress and increased anxiety and depression among other things. A study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that students who were asked to put away their phones for just 24 hours suffered from anxiety and confusion, while another study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that some young people experienced withdrawal symptoms, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, when separated from their phone. Even more frightening, one study found actual perceivable changes in brain structure and function, such as different levels of chemicals in the brain, of those thought to be addicted to smartphones.
In addition to the biochemical effects that phones have on the release of dopamine, a chemical that helps us form addiction, studies have also found that smartphones raise levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Cortisol triggers spikes in blood pressure and heart rate and helps us survive physical threats. Cortisol is also released in the context of emotional stressors. Our cortisol levels are found to be elevated when our phones are in sight, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol can have significant health implications including high blood pressure, heart attack, obesity and depression. Cortisol levels also affect our prefrontal cortex which is what helps us make decisions. Excessive smartphone usage is not only bad for us mentally, but physically as well.
So now that we know that smartphones and social media are in fact scientifically proven to be addicting, what can we do about it? For starters, knowledge is power, to accept that your phone usage is excessive is the first step in cutting back. Then, there are actually tools built into iPhones that can help us break this habit, such as setting time limits on our social media apps.
Being aware of how many hours you spend scrolling is important in understanding the scope of our personal usage. I challenge you to look at your screen time, and if you are taken aback by that number and want to make a change, an easy solution is setting screen time limits or limits on certain apps. If you don’t want to do that, another step could be turning off notifications so you are not bombarded by dings and buzzes all day. Another solution can be creating phone-free spaces, you could decide to charge your phone away from your bed for example. Most people have no idea the actual number of hours they spend staring at this little screen. Instead of scrolling, we should enjoy time outside with our family and friends. When you are bored, I challenge you to, instead of reaching for your phone, take a minute to relish in that boredom, in that moment where there is absolutely nothing for you to do. Take a minute in your thoughts instead of instantly bombarding your brain with stimuli.
I am guilty of this excessive phone usage as well, and I am aware that whenever I experience an inkling of boredom, my first thought is to reach for my phone — something I am trying to change. When I am watching a show, I don’t need to reach for my phone during commercials. When I am with my friends, I don’t need to start scrolling. While I know this fact, it is still hard to stop. It is not easy to stop using our iPhones at the excessive rate at which we currently use them because they were designed to keep us consumed. However, even if we cut back on our phone usage by just one hour each day, it will add up to an extraordinary amount of time we can then use for more beneficial purposes. In 2019, teens and young adults in the United States spent an average of 7.5 hours a day looking at screens. Think about all the things you can get accomplished in that time or the hours you can spend doing something for yourself.
Eve Marks is a sophomore double-majoring in environmental studies and philosophy, politics and law.