Are You Addicted to Your Phone?

. . . not to mention video games? (Psst: They’re designed to do just that!)

You want to stop playing a game, but need to get to a save point first. You know you check your notifications a lot, but it’s hard to quit. People say you should just put your devices down. But guess what? App and game designers want to get you hooked. Here’s how they do it—and how to keep your tech from taking over.

At first, Caleb’s video game habit was no big deal. He’d play for an hour or two, always after soccer practice.

But then Caleb’s life got more complicated. His parents split up, and when things got tense, Caleb escaped further into video games. When his mom remarried, Caleb moved halfway across the country. He may have been the new kid in school, but in his gaming world, he was an ace shot, blowing up rivals, looting their stuff, and playing better and longer than anyone else. Soon, he was spending all of his free time on his Xbox, rushing home from school to start a new game. “It got out of hand so fast,” says Caleb, now 16. “I’d play for hours and hours straight, day and night. My mom would tell me to go to bed, but I’d sneak up at night and do it some more.”

Do you ever plan to go for a run but end up playing video games instead? Or sit down with a computer to write a paper but get lost in YouTube? Have you ever missed the best part of a movie on Netflix because you got sidetracked sending snaps? According to a 2016 survey, more than 50 percent of teens say they feel that they’re addicted to their mobile devices. That’s not a coincidence: App makers and game developers want to get you hooked. “These apps and games seem like they’re just here to help you connect with your friends or show you funny memes and cute kittens,” says Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs, a tech start-up that creates apps. “But what’s going on is way creepier: They’re selling your attention span.”

He should know. Like other app developers, Brown’s job is to figure out how to get—and hold—your attention so that you keep coming back. That’s because the more time you spend on an app, the more money advertisers will pay the app’s makers. What those app and video game creators are selling, Brown says, is your attention, your interest, and the time you spend looking at their app.

So how do app developers and game designers keep us coming back? The answer lies in some of the most primitive parts of our brain. When you feel pleasure—when you score a winning goal, ace a test, or catch the eye of your crush—certain brain cells ignite, triggering the release of a chemical messenger called dopamine. There’s a classic experiment where a rat is given a lever to push. If nothing happens when the rat pushes the lever, it quickly loses interest. If a treat appears each time the rat pushes the lever, the rat eats a bunch of treats, then moves on to other activities. But if the treat sometimes appears and sometimes doesn’t, the rat pushes the lever obsessively.

With a phone, the same principle is at play, Brown says. Often, the notifications you get from your favorite apps really aren’t that exciting when you think about it—but you’ve been conditioned to seek that little rush that comes with finding out if anyone’s liked your latest photo or post, so you keep checking and checking. And sometimes those notifications are incredibly rewarding, like when you discover your last Instagram post got dozens of likes. When that happens, your brain floods with dopamine—a high you’re of course going to want to recreate again and again.

ON A STREAK

App makers and game developers are constantly tinkering with ways to get you to spend the most time with their product, Brown says. It’s a kind of brain hacking: They’ll experiment with how often you get a notification about a new comment or like to see what exactly will lead you to spend more time on the app. For example, some techniques are more overt, such as Snapchat’s “streaks.” If you’re not familiar: Snapstreaks keep you and friends in a cycle of sending snaps to each other at least once every 24 hours, or you risk “losing” your snapstreaks. (The anxiety starts as soon as you see that hourglass emoji next to a friend’s name, signaling a streak’s about to run out if you don’t send a snap—i.e., engage with the app, just as its creators want you to—soon.) Friends are ranked according to how long you’ve kept a streak going. If you’ve ever felt stress over the thought of losing your streaks, you know what it’s like to be hooked.

Since this technology is still new, we know little about how it affects the still-developing brains of teens. “We have an entire generation of guinea pigs in an experiment,” says psychologist Edward Spector, who helps teens who obsessively use technology.

Spector says the real benefit of an activity—nearly any activity—comes in the first hour. So if you’re spending more than an hour a day on your phone, think about other things you could do with your time. “If you spend that hour practicing guitar or playing basketball or hanging out with friends, it could make a huge difference in your life,” he says.

How do you know if you’re spending too much time on your phone or Xbox? Warning signs include lying about technology use, spending less time with friends in person, and falling grades, Spector says. If you try to cut back on your tech use and can’t, that’s a sign you might benefit from a break, or help from a psychologist or counselor, he adds.

For some people, technology use can balloon into a serious problem. Some of Spector’s patients spend so much time playing video games that they suffer physical consequences, like malnutrition or dehydration from forgetting to eat or drink. Many have a vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight. A few have even developed bedsores from sitting in the same spot for so long.

But you don’t need to have physical symptoms to know you might have a problem: Just as serious are the social consequences. When you compulsively use technology, you can miss out on important rites of passage—deepening friendships, dating, getting a job, or participating in sports or theater or band. One study showed that the more social media platforms someone used, the more likely they were to experience depression and anxiety. Spector helps his patients address any underlying mental health issues and set healthy limits around tech. “They want to be in control of their technology use,” says Spector. “They want to use it when they want to use it and get off when they want to get off.”

OBSESSED WITH LIKES

Lilli, 16, faced a different kind of struggle with technology. Once a dedicated ballet dancer, a serious back injury at 13 left her unable to dance—and searching for a new identity. Lilli, who asked that her last name not be used, created a glamorous persona for herself on social media, often snapping selfies with an alcoholic beverage in hand. “The person I was portraying myself to be didn’t really match up with the morals I had had before,” says Lilli.

But Lilli’s posts were a hit, receiving hundreds of likes from friends and classmates. When people encountered Lilli in person, they expected her to be the life of the party. And Lilli felt a rising sense of anxiety as she tried to live up to her online image.

Lilli enrolled in a residential treatment program, Paradigm, in Malibu, California. There she got sober and learned to talk about thoughts and feelings honestly. Since leaving the program, Lilli posts less frequently on social media and tries to present her authentic self. “I have a totally different perspective on social media now,” Lilli says. “I portray myself in an honest way, as the person I am deep down.”

Figuring out who you are is one of the most important tasks of the teen years, says psychologist Jeff Nalin, Paradigm’s executive director. When you spend too much time playing video games or crafting an online image, you neglect discovering yourself. “It can become very isolating,” he says.

Caleb, too, entered Paradigm’s program after his video game use got way out of hand. He had stopped playing sports, his grades slipped, and he struggled with anger issues. At Paradigm, where devices aren’t allowed, he realized how much he’d been missing. He got into surfing and tennis and applied for a job. Most importantly, he remembered how to connect with friends face-to-face. For Caleb, breaking his video game addiction was, well, a game changer: “It’s been a realization of what my life could be like.”

“I was supposed to play in a live-stream charity video gaming event with a team, but I was so hooked on another game, I was an hour late. So, there I was, trying to make an excuse as to why I was late, but I couldn’t find one.”

“I schedule gaming time on my calendar to set boundaries. One day I stream, another day I might play alone or record for my YouTube.”

“When I was bored or procrasti-nating, I would watch random videos on YouTube, from movie clips to interviews to the Olympics. It was easy to be curious about the next suggested video. Hours would pass and I wouldn’t realize.”

“Now I stay away from my phone when I need to. I’ll put it on airplane mode or simply put it on the other side of the room and do my homework.”

“Recently, I’ve been addicted to my phone. Sleep is important to me, yet I give up an hour of it before bed in order to catch up with social media. Once I was so tired I forgot about a band performance and missed it.”

“I keep my phone from taking over my time by creating a list of things I need to do. By keeping busy, I’m not always thinking about it!”

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