Can you really be addicted to your phone? A scientist and a comedian thrash it out

Are phones messing with our brains? It's time to find out (Getty)
Are phones messing with our brains? It’s time to find out (Getty)

I am always very careful about how I use the term ‘addiction’.

I’ve put it out there before that I’ve been ‘addicted’ to using my phone and have actually sought help to understand why.

But rather than just harp on about the dangers of social media, I sat down with someone vastly more knowledgable to talk about the science of addiction itself.

Dean Burnett possesses both a PhD in behavioural neuroscience and the ability to explain complicated things about the brain to regular folk like you and I.

He has, quite literally, written the book (several, in fact) on this topic and is therefore perfectly poised to answer the question of whether we can be addicted to our phones.

Now, a word of warning before we begin: this became a fascinating and pretty meandering conversation. So I’d recommend getting a cup of tea and making yourself comfortable before we get going.

Sorted? Right then, let’s proceed.

Russell Kane: Having known lots of addict-type people in my life, I’m still not clear on how addiction works so maybe we could just kick off with you explaining what it is?

Dr. Dean Burnett: Well addiction, if we’re talking in the clinical sense, is a disorder that occurs when you become unable to control your desire and your actions when it comes to obtaining something which, at least initially, gives you pleasure. The DSM (The Diagnostics and Statistical Manual, which is the go-to text for what counts for mental health disorders and what to do with them) focus almost exclusively on chemical or psychoactive substances which you consume or inject or inhale. However, gambling has just been added relatively recently because that seems to fill all the criteria, despite not having any particular substance that you introduce into your body

If you’re addicted to something you struggle to stop consuming it or it takes up a great deal of time. You spend most of your time thinking about it, consuming it or recovering from it. And if it takes priority over more typical needs, desires and motivations like maintaining a job or maintaining relationships it can be an addiction.

In terms of what’s happening internally, a lot of it stems from the reward pathway which is the little circuit right in the middle of the brain where the sense of pleasure comes from. When something triggers that pathway more than is normal, it causes a knock-on effect. So heroin causes massively amplified activity in the reward pathway, creating euphoria.

But the brain is a very flexible organ and it learns and adapts to the presence of heroin. The nerves and receptors will require a higher dose to get the same initial euphoria. That process is effectively addiction.

Dr. Dean Burnett has, literally, written the book on this kind of stuff (Dean Burnett)
Dr. Dean Burnett has, literally, written the book on this kind of stuff (Dean Burnett)

RK: You know, I was smoking a lot of weed at one stage. But I never ever struggled to put it down and go: you know what? Let’s not do that for a month.  And I never knew any physical withdrawal symptoms from not getting stoned. Now, that is not the same if I try to stop drinking coffee. God help anybody who gets in my way in that case. Obviously that is not the same when it comes to cocaine and heroin. So is there a difference then between physical addiction and habit addiction?

DB: In those cases it comes down to the different chemicals involved. People can be addicted to cannabis but it’s not common. You have stimulants and suppressants. So while alcohol is a depressant, cocaine is very much a stimulant, and how that affects someone depends on the individual and how their brain has developed over the course of their life. In some cases it could be that a person is more sensitive to stimulants while another is more sensitive to depressants.

RK: So, is a mobile phone a stimulant or a depressant?

DB: Well then the thing is, what are you using it for? Obviously phones now do so many things but one thing people don’t tend to use it for is making phone calls.

But, I think when it comes to smartphone addiction we perhaps need more specific terminology because you might be using it for social media or for internet gambling. If someone’s using their phone all the time and all they’re doing is going to gambling sites, I’d argue they have a gambling addiction and not a phone addiction. The same way we don’t say someone going into a casino all the time has a building addiction. 

RK: Let me put this to you: those of us that have it bad will find ourselves on a flight to LA or to Sydney or something and suddenly find ourselves on the weather app or going through old photos just for the blue light hit of being on the fucking thing. So I do think physically when it’s there, it’s almost irresistible to use it. Would you join the ranks of professionals who would call it an addiction with a capital A? People may not be aware there’s the DSM lists of things you have to tick off to be counted as an addiction, in a kind of sliding scale. I went through the list and I can’t find one the phone doesn’t fit.

DB: I think I would still be kind of wary of attaching the capital A addiction label to it because, let’s say if you take someone’s phone away, they’ll be angry at you and they might miss it, but it won’t be debilitating for them. They’ll still be able to function. I think that’s an important point when it comes to-.

RK: Sorry, I have to push you there. So if I take someone’s gambling away from them for a week, they would be debilitated and couldn’t function?

DB: A lot of times it does seem to happen, yeah. It’s like it’s in they are constantly on edge and unable to function.

RK: But that’s a part of how I would feel if you take my phone away from me. I think you’ve scored my own point for me there, Dean. Because most people I know – if you’re if you’re saying it’s about being on edge and debilitating and not functioning – I promise you that’s what happening when people can’t find their phones. So I would argue that, yes I’m not going to physically collapse through opioid withdrawal if you take my phone away but debilitated, unable to function and on edge? 100% all of those things.

Surely we’re getting close to agreeing phone addiction merits the capital A? And I’m not trying to have recovering heroin addicts say how dare you downgrade the quality of my addiction, what I’m saying is that it’s just a different type of addiction. Closer to the gambling terms we discussed earlier.

There are plenty of people like me who are finding themselves in the other room pretending to be tidying up or making a cup of tea but they’re not. They’re stood next to the boiled kettle to catch up on social media and missing out on family time.

DB: Okay, but what you’re describing comes more under the definition of a compulsive disorder, which is a different thing because you have a lot more insight into the fact that you’re aware you shouldn’t be doing this but you can’t seem to stop yourself.

You could argue that’s just as big a problem, sure. But severe addiction – and we’re talking about the top flight stuff – people deny it because chemically, on the cellular level the reward pathway and the frontal lobes of the brain are connected and the addiction actually distorts those. So the reward pathway is actually reaching out and tweaking the activity in the frontal parts of your brain whereby you lack insight and your thinking is distorted.

That’s one of the distinctions between the compulsion side and the addiction side. Addiction comes with the strong denial element whereas compulsion comes with shame and distress and concern that you are unable to stop yourself doing this thing.

Maybe we do need a new word to describe what it is that we have with tech and phones because while it doesn’t fit with the massive disruptive aspect that drug addiction has, it is clearly a problem.

The term addiction does have such a dicey history in the mental health world anyway because for a long time even therapists wouldn’t use it for fear of stigmatizing. But then they use the word dependence, which is a different thing as well, and that caused more confusion.

Social media and digital online concept, woman using smartphone
Phones, and the services they offer, have evolved to keep us using them all the time (Credits: Getty Images)

RK: Several interesting things come up for what you just said, but one insight I want to pick up on is the shame or lack thereof when it comes to phones. There’s no shame culture around using your phone too much because we’re all doing it. Imagine if we lived in a country where everyone thought all the consequences of heroin were fine and we all just lived with it and it was just normal. The fact that I removed shame from that culture doesn’t remove the fact that people are addicted to heroin, we’ve just removed the culture of shame that’s surrounds, I don’t know, being unemployed or being gaunt or being unhealthy or whatever comes with heroin addiction.

So that’s the first thing. I think the fact I’m not living my life fully and not seeing my friends as much as I can and just being on the phone taking selfies of myself – which most people don’t have a problem with – doesn’t mean it’s not objectively fucked, to use the scientific term.

And the other thing is when we’re talking about massive disruptive effects on life, sure if I start sticking a gram of coke up my hooter every day, my life is gonna fall apart pretty quickly, but why does the speed of one’s life falling apart dictate whether we define something as addiction?

There’s this brilliant book called The Village Effect that tries to work out why people live longer, richer, healthier lives in certain parts the world and it appears to be that one of the things that drive us is social connection.

So, if you have twin brothers that, when they grow up, one moves to the mountainside in Sardinia and is never allowed to be isolated and has got friends and siblings and cousins coming in and gathering around for communal meals all the time, while the other lives in a basement flat in London and spends all their time on their phone, the one in London will die sooner. Even if they eat the same food and do the same amount of exercise.

So is it possible that we are living with a massive disruptive cataclysmic, loss-of-life outcome that we’re just unaware of because it’s happening in slow motion as we live on our phones? I might be shaving 10 years off my life by not playing with my daughter as much while she’s five without even knowing.

DB: Of course, the reason phones are so stimulating and so rewarding is that they sort of hijack the parts of our brain which have evolved to reward and maintain social connections. They allow us to do all these things our brains have evolved to do but on a faster and much wider scale.

We have evolved to find pleasant interaction rewarding. But rather than speak to someone for ten minutes and have a nice chat, which is what we’ve evolved to do, you can now do one tweet or one Facebook post and get 50 likes and feel like you’ve just entertained 50 people. it’s a very short-term thing and, of course, you don’t get the face-to-face interaction which has obviously become exacerbated through the pandemic as well.

RK: That’s actually one of the thought experiments I wanted to ask you about. If you and I were having two versions of this chat where all the words, mannerisms and gestures are the same, but one is on Zoom and the other is face-to-face, in your opinion is there a difference between the neurological, cardiovascular and well-being outcomes on us after the chat has finished?

DB: Yeah, totally. When you are with someone in person it’s a much richer sensory experience. I’m looking at you on a screen right now and so the light is different, I can’t see your mannerisms properly. A lot of communication takes place on a subconscious level. I’m not getting the same emotional resonance if I can’t absorb your tones, your postures or your movements.

RK: That certainly squares with the laymen’s research that I’ve done on the subject, which is why I think there’ such a danger of coming out with the ‘new normal’ where we all just think ‘fuck it, I won’t bother to make the effort to meet someone because I know that Zoom works’ or ‘I don’t need to go out to the shops because I can just get it delivered’.

DB: Yes, tech is an excellent stopgap for now, and it’ll be a part of the world forever, but I’d argue that interacting with everyone purely through the technical medium is the equivalent of getting all your energy from sugar. It’s easier and more effective, but it’s not what we’ve physically evolved to do. It’s fine in the short term but over time it’ll cause bigger problems. Maybe we’ll evolve at some point to be able to do it, but that’s not going to be for millions of years.

Young Woman at Home Lying on a Couch using Smartphone Scrolling Through Sotcial Media Feed, Doing Swiping, Scrolling Gestures.
Studies have shown that actively participating in social media is better than passively consuming it (Credits: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

RK: If you have to hedge your bets, is there something intrinsically wrong with the amount of tech that we’re using? Or am I just a classic digital immigrant and not understanding that this is now a normal part of the environment and I need to ‘get with the program, grandad.’

DB: I think there are plenty of risks, yeah. We should be keeping a close eye on how much tech we’re using and what we’re using it for. The second point is key: what are we using tech for? A lot of the studies that have been done on tech use and mental health come down to how it’s being used. Technology is so broad, it’s such a wide spectrum to deal with. One study, focusing on social media, explained that it can be really bad for your mental health if you’re a passive user. Just scrolling endlessly means you may not take into account that when someone’s on social media they’re usually just presenting the best possible image of themselves.

If you look through 200 or 300 images of people doing that the only problems you’ll become aware of are your own. If everyone else’s life is perfect and mine’s not, am I a flawed person? You can spiral and have negative thoughts and you just keep doing it because that’s where the compulsion side of things that we spoke about earlier comes in. That will seriously damage how you see yourself.

But if you engage and reach out and say ‘hi guys. I’m having some problems, is anyone out there that can relate?’ well, tech allows that as well. And many people may find it easier to have a conversation like that with a sympathetic stranger than with a friend or family member where there’s a pre-existing relationship. In that instance, tech is a good thing. So, as I said, it really comes down to how you use it.

RK: And on that note, I think we can say that phone addiction is not some obscure problem but an actual issue that falls more into the compulsive behaviour camp than a ‘clinical’ addiction at this point in time. As you said, it really comes down to what you’re using your phone for.

Russell Kane and Dr. Dean Burnett are both ambassadors for Rethink Mental Illness, a charity that improves the lives of people severely affected by mental illness through local groups and services, expert information and successful campaigning.

Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Metro.co.uk has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover click here

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