9 March 2020

A few years ago, researchers invited pairs of strangers into a lab to run an experiment.

Each pair was seated in a private room and asked to share an interesting event that had happened to them recently. In the room, there were two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away and out of reach, a table that held a book and one other item. Some pairs chatted with a small notebook on the table, others with a switched off smart phone lying nearby.

After 10 minutes, the experiment ended and each pair was asked to rate how well they got on with the stranger they met. The pairs who chatted in the presence of the phone felt less positive about the interaction and less close to the stranger they met than those who had a notebook in the room. Even though neither person picked up the phone at any point.

How does this happen? How does a switched off smartphone that does not belong to us divide our attention and distract us from the person sitting opposite us?

Dopamine dispensers

Our smartphones work based on a reward cycle. When you pull to refresh your newsfeed, you immediately receive either a reward – a like, a notification, a match – or nothing. When we do get a reward, this releases dopamine – a feel-good hormone – in our brains. And our brains love dopamine. We get it from eating food we like, falling in love, and getting hundreds of likes on our Instagram posts. Dopamine reinforces (and motivates) behaviour that makes us feel good and, in turn, can create addiction. It keeps us coming back to our phones for more of that feel-good sensation.

From hit to habit

With each hit of dopamine, we develop a habit. We come to associate our phones with the way the dopamine makes us feel. Now we don’t need our phone to actually buzz to distract us. Just their presence leaves us expecting a feel-good hit and our brain prioritises this as something worth paying attention to. This means our phones occupy ‘privileged attentional space’ in our brains just like the sound of our own names. (Imagine how distracted you’d be if someone within earshot is talking about you and referring to you by name – that’s what smartphones do to our attention.) And that’s why we can’t stop being distracted by them, even when we don’t realise we are doing it.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be thinking about ways that we can learn to regulate our screen time, look out for our ‘Control the Scroll’ campaign coming soon.