A neurotransmitter in your brain called dopamine is the cause of your cell phone or smartphone addiction.
Before I start answering this question, let me confess that I am not a biologist, and many of the things mentioned below is what I found reading from other experts. Let me start by crediting them:
- Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google
- Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy. (An Intro to Variable Rewards) — Nir and Far
- Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.
Since I am a very visual person, I decided to create the figures below to convey the idea faster and more effectively.
Dopamine — a “feel good chemical” — is a neurotransmitter in our brain which, although critical for more mental and physical functions, plays an important role in reward-seeking behaviour.
Dopamine motivates you to seek pleasure-giving rewards like food, sex, and in some cases, drugs. When you are experiencing something new, or more importantly anticipating something new, dopamine levels rise, motivating you further.
All this is great from an evolutionary point of view, and explains why humans have gone out and searched for new experiences since the beginning of time. Perhaps without dopamine, we would just lie on sofas, unmotivated and not trying to achieve anything new in life.
Smartphones are not by themselves addictive without the presence of the Internet or social media. But once connected, they provide three different pathways of pleasure:
#1 Rewards of Hunt
Not only are we addicted to plain old physical pleasure, but hunting for new information or just reading and learning new stuff provides a dopamine rush unlike other activities. This is the very reason you are reading this article right now, and why sites like Quora or IFLS are so popular.
#2 Rewards of Self
Another reward pathway for a dopamine rush is being validated and liked by others. Every time someone likes your Facebook photos or in my case, up votes this answer, I will derive pleasure and dopamine will rush into my brain. causing me to write more stuff.
#3 Rewards of Tribe
We all want a feeling of belonging to a larger group and being accepted. Smartphones and social media allow this by letting us be part of meetup groups, discussion forums, Facebook chat groups and other instant messaging groups.
Next time your phone buzzes, and you reach for it expecting validation on social media or a news snippet, your dopamine levels will rise in anticipation. Once you have been properly rewarded with such information, a new pleasure-seeking habit is formed. In simple terms, this means that you are now hooked to your phone, and will wait in anticipation of rewards again and again.
Curious Robot is a group of disgruntled science people providing a Novice’s Guide to technology around us while introducing new scientific and technological concepts. You can find them on Facebook or on their website.