Study: It’s not your smartphone you’re addicted to, it’s the social interaction

MONTREAL — It’s hard not to believe that so many of us are addicted to our cell phones. After all, “text neck” has already become a household term for the slouch that develops from looking down at a device too frequently. But a study finds it’s not our smartphones we’re hooked on, rather it’s the constant social interaction that drives addiction.

Researchers from McGill University say that urge to socialize is actually an ingrained human need resulting from eons of evolution. For those who argue spending too much time on a smartphone makes a person anti-social, the authors say overuse is actually the product of being hyper-social.

Woman using her smartphone
It’s hard not to believe that so many of us are addicted to our cell phones. But a new study finds it’s not our smartphones we’re hooked on, rather it’s the constant need for social interaction that drives addiction.

Yes, it can be maddening to be around a friend or relative who is constantly checking their phone, sending texts, and updating their social media profiles. But McGill psychiatry professor Samuel Veissière thinks we’ve been looking at the problem in the wrong light.

“There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic,” says Veissière in a media release. “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.”

Veissière, a cognitive anthropologist, has studied the evolution of how humans think and behave. He offered a characteristically evolutionary perspective on the smartphone phenomenon, arguing that this technophile behavior we revile is nothing new. Humans evolved to be uniquely social creatures. The act of monitoring others’ behavior and the desire to be monitored ourselves stems from our evolutionary past. We need constant input from others as we seek a guide for culturally or communally acceptable behavior.

Many of the most addictive smartphone apps such as Facebook or Snapchat tap into this constant search for meaning and the ingrained desire to see others and be seen by them. In his study, Veissière and his research team looked at research on the downside to smartphone use and sought to connect findings to his belief on how the human being evolved to be a social creature.

Veissière insists the need for social interaction is a positive instinct, but in the age of constant connectivity to the internet and the variety of social platforms it provides, that instinct can be kicked into “overdrive,” leading to unhealthy addictions. The authors write that “comparing ourselves to others and against cultural norms also enables us to derive meaning, motivation, purpose, and a sense of identity. With socially connected smartphones, this evolutionary process simply runs on overdrive. We can now constantly and relentlessly engage in hyper-speed comparisons with social media content that is biased toward positivity.”

Veissière and his team recommend turning off push notifications on your phone if possible, and purposefully setting aside time to check your phone to help battle these addictive impulses.

The full study was published Feb. 20, 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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