Addicted for Good

The evolutionary reason why we are addicted to our smartphones

Posted Mar 04, 2019

When a phone rang, I stood silently, waiting for the phone to be silenced. Electronic equipment isn’t allowed in my classroom.

After more several rings, a student said to me, “Professor, I think it’s yours.”

She was right. My cellphone was in the pocket of my jacket, where I always keep it, hanging on a chair behind the desk.

I hadn’t silenced it.

“Aren’t you going to answer it?”

“No. It’ll stop soon.”

It did and I continued the class.

“But aren’t you going to look to see who’s called?”

“It’s probably a solicitation. If it isn’t, I’ll talk to the person later.”

“What if it’s an emergency?”

“I can’t remember ever getting an emergency call. And if it is an emergency, there’s nothing I can do right now anyway. Another half-hour won’t make any difference.”

For a number of students this was humorous, for others puzzling.

For me it was another example of how smartphones have so permeated our lives that tuning them out is nearly inconceivable.

A new study by the Pew Research Center reports that half of adults say they “couldn’t live without” their phones. University of Arizona psychology professor David Sbarra and colleagues from Wayne State University write that human nature connects us others in small networks of family and friends as a mechanism for survival. In the past that meant face-to-face relationships that required trust and cooperation.

Seeking an evolutionary explanation for the attraction—I’d say ‘addiction’—of smartphones and social media, Sbarra says, “Evolution shaped self-disclosure and responsiveness in the context of small kin networks, and we now see these behaviors being cued more or less constantly by social networking sites and through our phones. We now have the outer-most edges of our social network cue us for responsiveness. Look no further than the next person you see scrolling through Facebook and mindlessly hitting the 'like' button while his kid is trying to tell him a story.”

Smartphones have extended the boundaries of face-to-face intimacy with virtual intimacy. Technology has hooked into the biological need for human contact, the need to be recognized and the desire for personal disclosure.

The problem is that this often leads to a relationship conflict with those we are with, not virtually but in reality. When a student is on the smartphone in the classroom, they are no longer with those sitting around them. Being on the smartphone conflicts with being in the classroom. Sbarra cites a study of 143 married women in which more than 70% report that their mobile phones frequently interfered with their relationships.

Where I can, I create rules around the use of smartphones: none at the dinner table, not using them in the classroom, expressing my irritation when a person I’m engaged with answers a buzz. There’s plenty of time to be alone with the phone, but being with a real person in real time is a precious thing.