Hypernatural monitoring: The real reason we're so addicted to our smartphone

Most of us are aware that our mobile is making us depressed, anxious, narcissistic, lonely and insecure. In fact, you’ve probably read new reports explaining we're becoming increasingly reliant – even addicted – to them

Nomophobia – the fear of being phoneless – is so well established that there are even specific treatment centres for it
Nomophobia – the fear of being phoneless – is so well established that there are even specific treatment centres for it

You could probably reel off a list of all the ways your smartphone is causing you damage far easier than you could recite the terms of your 18-month contract.

Most of us are aware that our smartphone use is making us depressed, anxious, narcissistic, lonely and insecure. In fact, you’ve probably read news stories about it on your phone, because despite the many risks, we're becoming increasingly reliant – even addicted – to them, according to reports.

Earlier this year, major Apple investors – with $2bn (£1.43bn) of the company’s stock between them – called on the company to develop “digital locks” to limit the time children spend on their iPhones.

Smartphone addiction is so widely accepted that there’s even a name for the fear of being phoneless – nomophobia – and specific treatment centres to help us detach from technology.

The argument for addiction involves how our brain is constantly reacting to phone notifications throughout the day. Dopamine reward centres in our brain are the same areas involved when we eat, have sex, drink alcohol and ingest drugs, according to David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and founder of the Centre for Internet and Technology Addiction.

He told Business Insider that the brain releases dopamine every time we get a notification on our phone – so it’s no wonder we’re increasingly fearful of having to go phoneless.

But according to a new paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, our obsessive behaviour towards our phones – and the real reason we’re scrolling through Instagram at 1am when we have in important breakfast meeting – has little to do with the phone itself, and is actually driven by an evolutionary addiction to socialise with others, as well as a need to be seen by others and to watch their behaviour.

Samuel Veissière, lead researcher and assistant professor in McGill University’s department of psychiatry and anthropology in Canada, argues that the excessive amount of time we spend on our phones isn’t due to an addiction to notifications, but because of our evolutionary need connect with other people. And the social expectations and reward we derive from our phones is what drives our obsessive behaviour.

Smartphones, Veissière argues, just provide an unhealthy platform for us to carry out this impulse, which the paper, titled “Hypernatural Monitoring: A Social Rehearsal Account of Smartphone Addiction”, calls a "fundamental feature of human evolution that predates smartphones by hundreds of thousands – by some accounts several millions – of years”.

And we’re using our phones to connect with others because humans are hardwired to find the easiest way to do things, according to Veissière, and our phones offer just that. “We crave simplicity and minimal effort, using the least amount of cognitive energy possible. It requires less energy to text than to speak,” he says.

Addiction specialist and Harley Street clinic director Mandy Saligari, who said last year that giving a child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, agrees. She says every addiction is about the person, and not the substance they're abusing – in this case, their phones.

But while Saligari says there is “absolutely” a smartphone addiction, Veissière is arguing that something else is driving our addictive behaviour.

Phone addiction has quickly become a moral issue, says Veissière, and there is a lack of effort being made to understand the behaviours behind our excessive and dysfunctional behaviours. One of these moral judgements is that using our phones is antisocial, but the paper argues that the opposite is happening.

“We’re constantly trying to connect and compare with others, and we’re curious about what people are up to. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a deep evolutionary urge. Phones don’t make us antisocial; it’s precisely because we’re a hypersocial species wanting to connect so much,” Veissière says.

While a deep social urge doesn’t immediately explain why we spend hours scrolling through photos of people we don’t know, Veissière argues this behaviour is also written in human history.

“When we have access to something they crave, they have a difficulty with overconsuming it. This is an old story for humans. Once we have access to quantity we lose quality, we start following celebrities on Instagram, for example. We lose quality face-to-face interaction,” he says.

But Robert Barton, professor of anthropology at Durham University, says smartphone addiction isn’t an addiction, strictly speaking, because it doesn’t have the physiological side-effects that come with withdrawal. But he admits it’s correct in the “folk use of the term”.

“It is really hard to get people off their phones,” he says. “But this research is only partly correct, in that we’re highly social and we have a want of and need for social interactions, and a desire to know what’s going on in social world. It’s not antisocial, it’s social.”

However, Barton argues the research paper incorrectly sets up the argument we have strong desires to keep close social interactions as a “new idea”. Also, he says the paper’s argument doesn’t stand because we use our phones for reasons other than just socialising.

“Using out phones is being antisocial in one sense to those around us, but social in other ways – and the two are not mutually exclusive. People look at other things on their phone, like funny animal videos,” Barton says.

“It’s also the fact that we have sources of information about the world at our fingertips. Smartphone obsession isn’t just about being social,” he says, nullifying Veissière’s argument.

Veissière however, argues that everything we do on our phones is a form of socialising, because relying on others for information is a fundamental social behaviour that dates back through human’s history.

“These are some people who socialise less explicitly. For example, they might spend more time on Wikipedia, going from one link to the next, consuming loads of information. That’s social, just in ways that are less immediately evident than texting. We love outsourcing our intelligence to things like Google and Wikipedia. We learn from others,” Veissière says.

“Young people follow loads of people online; they spend time watching celebrities or tutorial videos. This is a way to learn from others. Animal videos are another kind of sociality, but they feed into the brain and release oxytocin, which fights loneliness.”

But our phone use has gone to the extreme and are sending our brain’s reward systems into overdrive, Veissière says. He says our smartphone obsession has left millennials spending less time interacting with others, having less sex, and spending more and more time online, alone, trying to connect with others.

“People need to be with other people, and often the online avenues they have to connect is through the internet. There’s an illusion of scale and size that provides a false sense of satisfaction. This is why we overconsume; people aren’t weak, they’re normal and they’re following basic needs.”

Veissière admits he swapped his smartphone for a basic flipphone that isn’t connected to the internet after doing the research for his paper, and feels happier, less anxious and more rested without it. He argues that there are ways for us to channel our social drive and use our phones in a healthier way.

“We use these technologies because we live in a world where most people move away from their homes and family, so they need to connect with others. But we need to use phones a lot less, and regain control over our phones and use them intentionally.”

Veissière advises talking to friends to set clear expectations of when you’re going to reply to their messages. Saligari agrees that we need to change how we use our phones, but says we shouldn’t panic that technology is a bad influence.

“It’s part of the future. We have to wake up to how potent an influence it really is. The answer is to learn to self-regulate around it. People don’t yet know how to manage this substance in their hands.”

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