British Columbia

Addicted to your smartphone? How to start kicking the habit

Neuroethics professor urges cell phone users to pressure big app developers to create less mind-numbing technology.

Neuroethics professor urges cell phone users to pressure big app developers

Studies suggest smartphone use can have an adverse affect on your mental health. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

From the intoxicating rush of a new notification, to the panic and helplessness of a dead battery, the emotions associated with cellphone use are very real.

According to University of British Columbia neuroethics professor Peter Reiner, the feelings our phones give us are a product of our growing reliance on — and addiction to — the technology.

"Many people do profess great anxiety when they're away from their phone," Reiner told host Dan Burrit on CBC's B.C. Almanac.

In fact, studies suggest that excessive cell phone use has significant mental health consequences, including mood changes, insomnia, and even depression. 

So how can you free yourself of the adverse health effects of your buzzing smartphone? According to Reiner, a few simple lifestyle changes can work wonders for your mental health — but users will ultimately need to put pressure on big app developers to design less addictive technology.

Smartphone apps have been designed to be highly addictive and never ending, says a UBC neuroethics professor. (Eakkaluk Temwanich/Shutterstock)

Simple changes

The link between sleep deprivation and smartphones has been well documented, especially among children and teenagers. Reiner says the phones can keep anyone awake at night, especially when they're sitting right next to your pillow.

"The first thing you can do, is not take that phone into the bedroom and keep it by your bedside," said Reiner. 

Lack of sleep has been linked to health problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to depression and substance use.

Reiner says another troublesome outcome of smartphone use is the tendency the devices have to drive attention away from a person's tasks or surroundings.

"The second thing to remove as many of the notifications — all those sounds — as you can," said Reiner. "If you watch people, as soon as a text comes in, they turn their head from whatever they are doing and immediately focus on that phone." 

It can take up to five minutes to refocus on a task once someone is distracted by a text message or notification, Reiner says.

Consumer pushback on app developers could be what's needed to turn the tide on addictive software, according to Reiner. (Shutterstock / ozero1504)

The infinite scroll

But most users are still held captive by app developers, according to Reiner. The most insidious attention grabber: the infinite scroll.

"When you're on FB or Instagram, you just continue to scroll and it never stops. and every time you swipe it, this new novel thing comes before you," said Reiner.

"Those kinds of intrinsic designs — if they were to modify them it might help us. But it might not help their bottom line."

Reiner says consumer pushback could play a role in the cultivation of software that is less addictive. In fact, Apple's major investors have even grilled the company for not doing enough to curb iPhone addiction.

"We think abut all those apps as being free, but they're not free — we pay with our attention, and we pay with all those clicks on the ads," said Reiner.

The neuroethics professor urges concerned social media users to urge major app developers to design software that is more friendly to the user's best interests.

"​Until we make those companies pay with their bottom lines being affected — I don't think anything will change."

With files from CBC's BC Almanac