STUDY: We’re Not Addicted To Smartphones, We’re Addicted To Social Interaction

Joseph Curl

Millennials get a bad rap. They're on their cell phones and iPads and laptops all day long. All night, too. They're Facebooking and Snappchatting and Instagramming nonstop — when my daughter was a teenager she often had a dozen or more conversations going on all day via text message.

Now, us old people think that's just awful. Why don't you put your phone down and just talk to somebody, we say snidely. We reminisce about the good old days, when people talked to each other face to face. Of course, our memories are fading. It was really like this in the old days:

Yes, even old people are wrong from time to time (they may be wise, but that's different than smart). Now, a new study finds that cell phones may be making everyone hypersocial, rather than antisocial as we've all just sort of assumed, Neuroscience News reports.

Professor Samuel Veissière, a cognitive anthropologist who studies the evolution of cognition and culture, explains that the desire to watch and monitor others, but also to be seen and monitored by others, runs deep in our evolutionary past. Humans evolved to be a uniquely social species and require constant input from others to seek a guide for culturally appropriate behaviour. This is also a way for them to find meaning, goals, and a sense of identity.

In a forthcoming study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Samuel Veissière and Moriah Stendel, researchers in McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, reviewed current literature on dysfunctional use of smart technology through an evolutionary lens, and found that the most addictive smartphone functions all shared a common theme: they tap into the human desire to connect with other people.

Of course, healthy human drives can become addictions, and Veissière says the always-on connectivity available now pushes the brain’s reward system to run on overdrive.

“In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (…) the pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theatre of hyper-social monitoring,” the authors write in their paper.

But there's still good news. "There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic,” says Veissière. “We’re trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this.”

The professors do urge that users set parameters on when — and how much — they use their cell phones. Setting up times each day to check email and messages — say every two hours — can help. And they also want employers to stop deluging employees all weekend with emails and texts.

But next time you see a pack of kids, all with their noses buried in their cell phones, remember: While they may not be talking to each other, they're still being sociable.

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