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How Our Phones Negatively Affect Our Brains

Some of you may remember a time, years ago, where you had to actually use a physical map to determine where you needed to go. Or a time when if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to call them. And if you wanted to see pictures of your friends, you needed to go to their homes and see pictures posted on their fridge or in frames on their walls.

Do you feel you have a short attention span? Or have trouble reading an entire article from beginning to end? Maybe you notice that you are short with your spouse or partner and have more fights about irrelevant topics? Maybe you are messing up at work bc you are not paying full attention to your job bc you are texting all day? Or are you shopping too much online and buying things you do not even realize?

Anyone who uses a smartphone and social media daily, are similar to drug addicts, alcoholics and gamblers. Drug addicts and alcoholics have substance addiction and gamblers have behavioral addiction, so smart phones are more aligned with behavioral addiction, but whether its substance addiction or behavioral addiction, its addiction and it can be dangerous and a detriment. In other words, addiction is a problem and if you are addicted to your phone and social media, then you have a problem.

Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that motivates behavior. It gets released when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and, when we have successful social interactions. It rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them. Smartphones and social media have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.

Our dopamine neurons have reward prediction errors that serve as dopamine-mediated feedback signals in our brains. In layman terms, when gamblers play slot machines and anticipate a reward, the moment the lever gets pulled down our dopamine neurons start to increase their activity, which enhances the reward feeling just by playing the game. And if they do not see any winnings, then the dopamine starts to decrease. But they want their dopamine to increase, so they keep playing and playing, even if they are losing. They want that high again from the reward of winning. Thus, creating a balance of positive and negative outcomes keeps our brains engaged. It gets us hooked, addicted.

So this is how our phones and apps, and social media work. There is an unpredictable reward pattern, it's random, to keep you hooked. You end up checking habitually. For example, instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold likes on photos and deliver them in larger bursts. This uses a variable reward schedule which takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimizes the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users.

Notifications train our brains to be in a near constant state of stress and fear by establishing a stress-fear memory pathway. This means that the prefrontal cortex, the youngest part of our brains that deals with our highest-order cognitive functioning, goes completely haywire, and basically shuts down.

Our prefrontal cortex deals with planning, decision making, it helps us to set goals and achieve them, it gives us self-control, it's the executive functioning area of our brain. Our smartphones and social media apps are pulling us away from the prefrontal cortex area and turning on our limbic brain and brainstem. What's also important to note is this- our brains have not evolved, its reptilian. But technology has evolved. From the documentary “The social dilemma”, they give a good description of how our brain is millions of years old, and it's staring at a supercomputer (our smartphones) that is way more advanced. There is no way our brains can compete with smartphones. It’s not a fair comparison.

With our brains, we aren’t wired to have 100s to 1000s to millions of positive interactions from a picture or video of us. We also aren’t wired to deal with the high amount of negativity that could come from a post. We aren’t wired to look at perfectly curated lives of others everyday, which makes a lot of people depressed. We aren’t wired to delegate most of our thinking tasks to our devices (which is making us lazier and our brains sicker, slower). We aren’t wired to learn and read from screens, which reduce comprehension and conceptual thinking. We aren’t wired to constantly be tapping, clicking and scrolling- which internally makes our brain signals noisier which is taxing to the brain. We also aren’t wired to live on online interactions, which replaced high quality face to face interactions, the type of connection we need to thrive in life.

Our smartphones and social media apps keep us away from the types of interactions that make us really happy. Our devices are affecting our brains in negative ways. We are addicted and it’s getting worse, not better as we are so reliant on our phones.

Have you gone a day without your phone? If so, how did it make you feel? Were you freaking out that you were missing out on something important? Try not touching your phone for an hour and see how you feel. Do you feel anxious? Do you feel the need to go check on your phone for a notification?

The summer of 2020 was a travel challenge for everyone due to COVID. My husband and I did local beach trips almost every weekend. Luckily we live near a lot of beaches, so we could adventure out to a new beach each week. It was a fun, creative way to explore during this time. And as it turns out, most beaches near us have ‘no service’. So on the days we would go, I couldn't use my phone. It forced me to put it away. But I could tell I was addicted, as I wanted to get back to service areas, to check on my DMs, texts, emails, etc. We took one trip that I challenged myself to not use my phone for 3 days, I could only use it for pictures. It was hard to do at first, but by the second and third days, I felt like a new person. I felt my brain changed as well, which may sound weird but I felt a shift inside.

I don’t want to have a problem with addiction, I don't think anyone does. That means our devices have control over us, which is not good. We only have one brain, that's it. We have to take care of it. And knowing all this information about smartphones and social media, and what it does to our brains is important. We have the choice, the decision on how we can take back control.

As a Holistic Psychotherapist, I’m concerned with how this affects everyone’s mental health and overall wellness. We don’t want to be addicts, we don’t want to feel anxiety or depression, but this is what is happening right now and what will continue to happen over time. We as a collective will become more and more anxious, depressed, and addicted. This turns into dysfunction at work, in relationships, in all areas of our lives.

Our devices and social media accounts are changing us into beings with slower, lazier brains. Our comprehension and conceptual thinking has reduced. We are lonely and hungrier for real relationships and deeper connections. We are more depressed and anxious. We have a hard time distinguishing what is real and fake anymore and brainwashed by fake news. We have to step away from our devices, we need to take more time away from our social media accounts.

This topic is very important for all of us, as a collective, as a human race. But the choice is up to you, to do nothing or take a step in changing your habits to reduce any addiction you may have with your phone. I will write another post on how to change our habits and rewire our brains.


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