La dipendenza da smartphone

Cell phone addiction

How to find a new balance by reducing the intensive use of digital technologies.

by Andrea Signorelli
14 June 2021
7 min read
by Andrea Signorelli
14 June 2021
7 min read

In less than 15 years, smartphones have transformed society. It was 2007 when Steve Jobs presented the iPhone promo in San Francisco. Immediately, everyone felt they were part of something momentous: the unique design and innovative functions of the iPhone contributed to a significant increase in smartphone sales, forcing competitors to create equally advanced devices in terms of both technology and aesthetics.

And that’s how our lives changed. Smartphones have become an extension of ourselves: we always keep our smartphone close, we use it to make phone calls, check our emails, communicate withini friends, take photos, listen to music, post on socials, read and comment on daily news, watch videos, manage our workflow and much, much more. Basically, smartphones have become an essential part of our life.

How often we use the smartphone

And there’s data to prove it: according to research, we use our smartphone for about four hours a day. A great amount of time, during which we take breaks that only last less than three minutes. A recent study also showed that people check their mobiles about 96 times a day. Essentially, if we exclude bedtime, we can’t stay away from our mobile for more than ten minutes at a time. These figures are corroborated by our daily experience: how many of us find themselves clicking away and scrolling on social media simply out of habit? How difficult it is, nowadays, to get lost in a book or a film without being distracted by even the mere presence of this rectangular object, always close to us?

In short, society has developed a smartphone addiction, and it makes itself felt as soon as we wake up. According to Lisa Iotti’s work, ‘8 secondi: viaggio nell’era della distrazione’ (8 seconds: journey in the era of distraction), soon after waking, 79% of people can’t wait 15 minutes before giving in to the impulse of checking their mobile. For many of us, mobile phone addiction also disrupts sleep, as 37% of Italian people –as reported by Lisa Iotti– quickly check the mobile even when they wake up in the middle of the night.

How did we get to this point? One of the most important things we should know is that there’s a specific reason if these devices have managed to take over so much of our lives: they were designed precisely for this purpose. And the same is for their most trusted allies, social networks. As shown by Tristan Harris, former designer at Google, both work by following the same principles as a slot machine, another device that was specifically designed to create addiction and that, in the most severe cases, can lead to compulsive gambling.

Smartphone addiction and dopamine

When we refresh a social media page, we see new posts go by very quickly, until the latest ones appear: just as it happens with slot machines’ combinations after pulling the lever. And once the page is up to date, we are shown new messages or notifications: just as it happens when a slot machines displays the winning combination just before cashing out.

This is not a random comparison, on the contrary: both smartphones and slot machines appeal to dopamine, a substance produced in our brain that releases a fleeting feeling of pleasure just when we complete a task or get a reward. It is believed that our brain learned to produce dopamine to give us the incentive to feed and take care of ourselves and our kin, rewarding primitive people with a burst of pleasure just when –after much effort and toil– they managed to kill a wild boar in order to feed their family, for example.

This is the same purpose that lies behind to-do lists and their success. The lists we use to organise our daily commitments not only have the purpose of providing us with an overview of the situation, but are also an incentive to complete our tasks. And as we tick off an item on our to-do list, our brain celebrates this small victory by releasing a burst of dopamine, spurring us to move on and complete the next task.

Smartphones and social networks also use dopamine to keep us glued to them for as long as possible. Every time a Like appears, for instance, our brain interprets it as a small gratification that triggers a tiny rush of pleasure. In this way, we are encouraged to post more content on Facebook or Instagram, and to check our mobiles more often, to see how many people have liked our posts.

Tools to fight smartphone addiction

How do we detox from our mobile phones? First of all, we need to acknowledge the addiction. The industry itself, following the large amount of criticism that’s arising, have introduced some tools that help monitor our behaviour. Apps such as Usage Time on iOS, or Digital Wellbeing on Android allow, in just a few clicks, to set intervals when notifications won’t appear, as well as allocate off periods or maximum usage time for some apps. Some users also find it useful to set the smartphone display to black and white: this is because our brain has learned to be attracted by bright and colourful things. Colours, in fact, grabs our attention and this is why switching to dark or light mode (often called grayscale mode) can be used as a deterrent. 

There are also applications designed exclusively to limit mobile use. One of the most popular is Forest, which uses the principles of gamification to encourage us to detox from both social media and mobile phones: for every minute we manage to stay away, a sapling grows on our display and it withers if we don’t stick to our digital detox resolutions. Other apps are much stricter: Focus Lock (only available on iPhone) deletes all applications for a set period of time, thus preventing us from cheating (phone, text and email functions are not included, due to emergency and professional reasons).

These are very useful tools that offer the chance to rediscover the pleasure of immersing ourselves in an activity, without interruptions. And if all this is not enough, it’s also useful to know that the constant stream of incoming notifications also engenders anxiety and stress: every time the mobile emits a sound, our brain interprets that noise as a small alarm signal. A question arises, then: how convenient is it to live in symbiosis with a device that’s also such a double-edged sword? The answer is simple: as we can’t do without smartphones, we must learn to use them in the most rational and balanced way possible.

The author: Andrea Signorelli

Journalist class of 1982, he writes about the interaction between new technologies, politics and society. He contributes to La Stampa, Wired, Domani, Esquire, Il Tascabile and others.