Why phones are like donuts and drugs, and how to be more disciplined in your usage

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

Most of us probably spend too much time on our phones. We instinctively reach for it when we’re bored or waiting in line, or because a notification catches our eye. The average smartphone user unlocks their device 50-80 times a day, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. With recent revelations over the potential harm of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, you might be in search of a break. But how do you find one? 

Feel-good neurochemical dopamine plays a crucial role in training the brain to say yes to phone notifications, says Harvard University professor Arthur Brooks. 

“It's behind all addictions. And what happens is that when something promises a little bit of a payoff, your brain trains itself to key into that thing by stimulating a little bit of dopamine, which is satisfying. It makes you feel really good,” Brooks tells KCRW. “Therefore, if something notifies you, ‘Ping!’ Or there's a light, or you just think of your phone, you can't not look.” 

Brooks says that phones, such as the iPhone, and individual apps are built to addict you. He uses the example of Instagram and the New York Times app. 

“Scrolling through Instagram is horrible. And yet, maybe there's something there. Maybe just a little banana or a piece of fruit on that tree. And so we go for it,” he explains. “If you go to the New York Times app and you read an op-ed that says Donald Trump is evil. At the bottom, there’ll be something slightly more outraged, and the algorithm is such that it’ll give you a little more dopamine if you go a little bit further down that rabbit hole.” 

He adds that interrupting conversations to check your phone can have a negative effect on both yourself and the relationship you’re forming with another person. 

“You have to be conscious of the fact that this is not making your life better. It’s making your life worse. It’s making you lonelier. It's attenuating your relationships,” he says. “You break the conversation by unlocking your phone and looking at your messages. … That conversation, the eye contact, the oxytocin — which is a neuropeptide that floods your brain with love when you have eye contact with another person — is busted.”

How to manage the urge to scroll

Brooks recommends looking at phone usage like other highly addictive items, such as donuts, candy bars, and drugs. 

He notes that without conscious efforts to stop addictive behavior, it can easily overwhelm your life. “If you just go with what feels good … you will be a dopamine machine. Practically everything you'll be doing all day long — will just be trying to get the hits off the dopamine machine.”

Brooks says it’s crucial to examine how much attention you devote to looking at your phone. That’s because oftentimes, a person is giving mindless attention to their device.

Then, Brooks says to schedule in your phone time. He suggests carving out 10 minutes every couple of hours to check messages and other notifications. 

“A couple of different things happen [when you do this]. Number one, you become more disciplined. So you are actually managing the process. But number two, when you're conscious of what you're doing, you're like, ‘This is actually really, really boring. I don't like this.’ And you get some kind of an aversion going, which makes it just much easier to ration.”

Brooks adds, “If you're not disciplined about it, the less important thing … will start to crowd out the more important things … like your family, or calling your mom, or something that you actually really want to do, but it's not time-sensitive, and you become highly ... cognitively path-dependent. Which means that once your mind is wandering down this road, it just keeps on that road unless there's this natural end of the line on this.”