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David Greenfield PhD, MS
David Greenfield PhD, MS

Digital Distraction: Internet and Smartphone Addiction

Why the Internet, smartphones, and digital technology are so appealing.

The Internet and the smartphone appear to hamper our ability to manage and balance time, energy, and attention. And they can be addictive. Ease of access, disinhibition, content stimulation, time distortion (dissociation), perceived anonymity, as well powerful activation of neurobiological reward pathways in the mesolimbic system and prefrontal cortex, all contribute to the powerful psychoactive impact of the Internet.

Essentially, the Internet and the smartphone, which is essentially a traveling Internet portal, become what might be described as the “world’s largest slot machine.” The entire Internet operates on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule of neurobiological reinforcement; when you go online you never quite know what you are going to get and when you are going to get it; plus, how desirable, salient, pleasurable will the content will be. This is how a slot machine works. It is the unpredictability that keeps our brains tuned-in and when we get that “reward."

In whatever digital form we find pleasurable, we receive small elevations of dopamine. Dopamine is strongly implicated in reward, compulsion, and addiction circuits in the brain. Because the reward is variable and unpredictable, it is highly resistant to extinction and we endlessly keep checking online or going on our phones. We check our phones to near-compulsive levels whether it is stocks, sports, social media, web search, text, email, gaming, or pornography—the content is irrelevant.

The smartphone also adds another dimension to our Internet experience by its frequent use of notifications. Here we are constantly getting information pushed through to us as we receive beeps, buzzes, and blips that tell us something, maybe pleasurable or not, is waiting for us to check and it is that anticipation of possible desirable content, that provides the greatest elevation of dopamine; this is the dopamine peak that keeps us pushing the handle of the slot machine. We check the phone, and if what we find is pleasurable, we get a secondary reinforcing dopamine hit. Our smartphone now becomes the world’s smallest slot machine and we carry it in our pocket, purse, or car.

The smartphone keeps us on automatic pilot and it inhibits us from making healthy choices, as we are responding to life on an automated and unconscious neurobiological basis. We socially isolate, are intolerant of boredom, and are always connected somewhere other than where we actually are at the moment. In short, we are over-stimulated and attention-impaired. Add to this the intoxication and expectation of broadcast capability, where our digital culture places little value on real-time experiences that are not recorded and broadcast; it’s as if our experiences didn’t occur unless witnessed by others.

This phenomenon further contributes to the experience of FOMO, or fear of missing out, which is the idea that we must transmit and bear witness to our lives via social media for fear that we will either be missed or will miss something. Ironically, what we seem to be missing is the present-centered experience of our own lives. Other possible negative health impacts are increased sedentary behavior, limited attention capacity, and the stress of being ever-connected.

High on the list of unhealthy smartphone habits is compulsive use and distractibility: The data clearly demonstrates that excessive and compulsive use of our smartphones doesn’t stop when we get in our cars. People are being injured and are dying at an alarming rate from compulsively using their smartphones while driving. Perhaps most alarming are recent findings showing that it’s not just texting that distracts us while we drive; most smartphone functions are engaged in while driving.


Greenfield, D.N. What Makes Internet Use Addictive? (2010) In K. Young & Abreu, C.N. Internet Addiction: a handbook for evaluation and treatment. Wiley: New York.

About the Author
David Greenfield PhD, MS

David Greenfield, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

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