An Antidote to the Toxicity of Smartphones

by Jake Wiskerchen

Psst! Come close, I want to share a secret with you. Ready? Here it is:


Smartphones are addictive.


Okay, maybe that’s not news. Or maybe it is. Or maybe you just look at that statement and laugh because in your mind a phone isn’t a real addiction like some of those “other” addictions out there. Really, just how harmful could a phone be when compared with drugs, alcohol, and gambling?

Regardless, it is a concept worth considering.

So consider this: in the brain we have a whole bunch of chemicals performing different functions and among those is something called dopamine. This chemical, along with serotonin and norepinephrine, governs our experience of pleasure, and in doing so, it tells us to seek rewarding behaviors. In other words, when we get what we want, dopamine is discharged and the behavior is reinforced because the brain likes how that behavior feels. Not only is dopamine is released when we get what we want, it is also released when we partake in things like gambling, alcohol, sex, nicotine, food, and illicit drugs. Granted, not everything that triggers a dopamine release is actually healthy for our body, mind, or soul, but the brain knows no different and as such, continues to pursue it the best ways that it knows.

Now picture what you do on your phone: communications, social media, information searches, games, and so forth. Every time your phone alerts you, the same pleasure mechanism in your brain lights up and dopamine is released; you have been rewarded. Your brain seeks to do it again. Your phone complies. Over, and over, and over again.

Let that sink in for a moment. How many times throughout the day do you receive a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or game notification? How many emails, text messages, news or sports updates do you get? Dozens? Hundreds? Each of those instances is slowly conditioning your brain to need more, often to the point that you “cant” leave your phone alone. This is the foundation for an addiction.

The addiction in this case is not to whiskey, cocaine, or blackjack but the overall goal is the same: neurological gratification. And in the case of the phone, that gratification is instant, especially with the power of the internet and access to information all over the world. Fascinating to note is that the “typical” addictions usually require some level of effort to seek, including leaving the home or spending money, but with smartphones the gratification is readily accessible all the time, right there in your hand, instantly. 

Pause briefly and consider whether you would introduce children to addictive substances or behaviors without considering the consequences. Now consider how often your children are on their phones. If your children have all-day access to stimulation then it should be no surprise that they fail to pay attention, connect with others, or communicate effectively. We should also be unsurprised when children cannot tolerate distress when not getting what they want, not to mention getting it immediately, and customized to their desires! Also consider the message of immediate me-ism in our products: “I”tunes, “I”phone, “YOU”tube, “FACE”book, “INSTA”gram. Even the names are pushing self-satisfaction without a wait.

Eventually the lower-level dopamine boosts cease to satisfy and the brain craves more. More apps, more friends, more news alerts, more texts. To unplug seems almost impossible simply because the brain has been wired with a new baseline of what is normal. We suddenly find ourselves unable to be still and simply sit in peace without stimulus. Before you realize it, you no longer have the control that you once did and your phone - an inanimate object - becomes your metaphorical dope man, always ready to feed your gratification desires.

At least most adults born prior to about 1990 lived a life before rampant technology. We had a childhood free of incessant screen time and we were not consumed with instant gratification. Because they have never known a life without constant stimulus and instant gratification, our children are far worse off than even we are. Ask your kids how long they could go without checking their phones. Better yet, ask yourself how long you could go. There’s the addiction.

All is not lost however. What you can do is impose restrictions. Implement a rule that from 9 p.m. until after breakfast is eaten, all the phones go off and get placed in the parents’ bedroom. The children can have them during the day (if they must have them at all) but at least this teaches discipline and patience. Also, please monitor their transactions and see what they are viewing, searching, and to whom they are speaking. Most content on the internet is not suitable for children, from violence to pornography, all of which is accessible and much of which increases dopamine release well above – and way beyond – the lower-level triggers from simple notifications.

Phones should never be allowed in the classroom either. There’s simply no reason for it. In case of an emergency, all the adults in a school have cell phones anyway. What did we do prior to about 2006 and the smartphone explosion? We trusted the school to make the communication in an emergency and placed children’s social, emotional, psychological, academic, and physical health first. We never even considered asking children to be responsible for making a call in an emergency because their brains literally are not developed enough to handle that level of hypervigilance and crisis management. We are now starting to burn them out as they grow up faster than biology intended. So, step in and make it a family rule; don't even rely on the school. Instead, rely on your own authority over your children. 

As a related side note, this is why first responders are typically restricted from full-time work until age 18 or 21. The human brain does not stop developing until about age 25 but at least we have some age restrictions; 18 for tobacco, 21 for alcohol and gambling, and (in some states) recreational marijuana. For certain drugs, no age is safe. Yet we have no age restriction on smartphones that, quite literally, produce the exact same effects. That means it is up to the parents to impose the limits.

Our children are precious. They do deserve protection and they do deserve to have their innocence maintained. It is our job as adults to set those parameters for them and to educate them as to their importance. Check your children’s phone usage and make sure that their social, emotional, and educational needs are being met from something other than a screen. Keep them innocent. Keep them curious and free. Keep them from becoming addicted by constantly seeking stimulation. Teach them peace and tranquility. Let them be bored because research shows that it promotes creativity.

And oh, by the way, perhaps you could even limit your own phone usage because after all, the best leaders lead by example.