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Neuroscience: our relationship with intelligence

Addiction: a tax for social media like tobacco

James Bowers, Chief editor at Polytechnique Insights
On February 18th, 2021 |
5 min reading time
Samuel Vessière
Samuel Veissière
Assistant professor of Psychiatry at McGill University, Montreal
Key takeaways
  • According to Dr. Samuel Vessiere smartphone addiction is a by-product of their use to access social media.
  • In recent years, numerous mental health issues such as anxiety and depression have been linked to smartphone use and continues to rise.
  • Our desire to access social information, he says, comes from our natural psychological drivers, which push us to keep check of our social status.
  • Whilst only 0.6% of the population are addicted to hard drugs, as much as 40% may be addicted to smartphones. Dr. Vessière therefore calls for stricter regulations or even taxation of social media, similar to those of other addictive substances like tobacco.
  • With his research team, they suggest a list of 10 ways to reduce screen time in the form of a digital detox as way to reduce negative effects.

“Above all else, the most addic­tive aspects of smart­phones are their social func­tions,” states Samuel Veis­sière, an evo­lu­tion­ary anthro­pol­o­gist and assis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. His research focus­es on the mech­a­nisms behind smart­phone and Inter­net addic­tion; from dopamine and over-acti­va­tion of reward cir­cuits, to ‘hyper socia­bil­i­ty’ to hyp­not­ic sug­gestibil­i­ty 1

He explains that the phe­nom­e­non is dri­ven by more than just the dopamine hits that we receive from the vari­able rewards of noti­fi­ca­tions – as is the com­mon the­o­ry. Rather, he argues that the habit of pick­ing up our phones has been ingrained through Pavlov­ian-type con­di­tion­ing. “When peo­ple are wait­ing for a bus, or expe­ri­ence a sit­u­a­tion of bore­dom, they tend to pick up their phone and engage in mind­less brows­ing to seek stim­uli and rewards”. Samuel Veissière’s research aim is to uncov­er the “sub­stance” that makes many of us so addict­ed that we are will­ing to sac­ri­fice basic needs like food, sleep, and even sex.

Social media and pub­lic health

Whilst there is still some debate in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, there is an increas­ing body of evi­dence direct­ly link­ing smart­phone and social media use to men­tal health prob­lems like anx­i­ety and depres­sion. Stud­ies also point out links to impaired cog­ni­tion and mem­o­ry and sleep prob­lems, going so far as to high­light an epi­dem­ic of lone­li­ness and decreased face-to-face inter­ac­tion – which fur­ther impairs over­all health and well-being. One thing we do know to be a major fac­tor is that smart­phones are large­ly used to access social net­work­ing sites, known to dri­ve us to addic­tive and anx­io­genic loops of upward social comparison. 

In a the­o­ret­i­cal paper pub­lished in 2019 in the pres­ti­gious jour­nal Behav­iour­al and Brain Sci­ences 2, his research team pre­sent­ed a new par­a­digm on the ‘co-evo­lu­tion’ of cog­ni­tion and cul­ture. Sci­en­tists have come to under­stand that organ­isms func­tion in the world by gen­er­at­ing ‘pre­dic­tions’ about behav­iours that dif­fer­ent envi­ron­men­tal stim­uli afford. Hence, min­imis­ing any unwant­ed sur­pris­es in an inher­ent­ly uncer­tain uni­verse so as to ensure sur­vival. While sci­en­tists were already describ­ing the brain as a “pre­dic­tion” machine, Veis­sière and col­leagues spec­i­fied that human brains and bod­ies do not nav­i­gate the world alone, but col­lec­tive­ly, by out­sourc­ing rel­e­vant behav­iour­al pre­dic­tions to a net­work of oth­er brains. 

The basic idea is that humans (unlike chim­panzees!) are not very good at indi­vid­ual prob­lem-solv­ing, and instead need to draw on a large reper­toire of cumu­la­tive knowl­edge and skills passed down over the gen­er­a­tions. As such, human brains seek to con­stant­ly update their beliefs in response to what oth­ers around them are doing – which mate­ri­alis­es as us com­par­ing our­selves to oth­ers and adjust­ing behav­iour accordingly. 

Veis­sière explains that human cog­ni­tion and cul­ture “already work like the Inter­net”, in that human minds are already designed to out­source (“browse” and “down­load”) infor­ma­tion. We scan the social world for behav­iour­al guide­lines and a sense of pur­pose and iden­ti­ty. “Social media and most of the Inter­net pro­vide such a guide. Even when we are not direct­ly inter­act­ing with peo­ple we know – for exam­ple, when we watch YouTube videos or scroll through a celebrity’s Insta­gram or Twit­ter feed – we are iden­ti­fy­ing social­ly rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion that will enable us to func­tion opti­mal­ly accord­ing to the norms and val­ues of our group,” he states. 

Smart­phone addicts

To mea­sure smart­phone addic­tion, Veis­sière and his team use a “prob­lem­at­ic smart­phone use” scale, which assess­es the extent to which a phone inter­feres with every­day life.  To put things into per­spec­tive, only 0.6% of the world pop­u­la­tion are addict­ed to hard drugs like cocaine, opi­ates, and amphet­a­mines 3. In com­par­i­son, Veis­sière and his team found that over 40% of the sam­ple in a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent pop­u­la­tion showed signs of smart­phone addic­tion. More­over, in a study of 24 coun­tries around the world, addic­tion rates have been increas­ing expo­nen­tial­ly since 2014, with Chi­na exhibit­ing the high­est rates by far 4.

He com­pares smart­phone addic­tion with cul­tur­al assump­tions about smok­ing. “Fifty years or so into the future, I imag­ine we will see peo­ple in films stuck to their smart­phones and find it as unset­tling as we do now when we watch old movies where peo­ple are smok­ing in offices and trains.” 

“The arrival of the iPhone in 2007 pre­cip­i­tat­ed our species’ tran­si­tion into the mobile dig­i­tal niche,” he states, “which ush­ered us into deep, rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions of all aspects of our lives that we have yet to ful­ly com­pre­hend.” He con­sid­ers smart­phone addic­tion to be a major pub­lic health and pub­lic safe­ty issue going as far as claim­ing that, “the inter­net should be reg­u­lat­ed as if it were a hard drug. All devices should dis­play large, evi­dence-based health-warn­ings, pre­scribed con­sump­tion quan­ti­ties by age and at-risk group, and be heav­i­ly taxed over a set of hours per day.” 

For him, “chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar should be legal­ly pro­tect­ed from screens in the same way they are pro­tect­ed from tobac­co, alco­hol, and oth­er drugs than can harm their devel­op­ment.  Inter­net time should be lim­it­ed to struc­tured research in schools.  Cur­rent pedi­atric guide­lines pre­scrib­ing a max­i­mum of two hours of a day for chil­dren are not con­ser­v­a­tive enough.” He says that “par­ents who want to keep in touch with their chil­dren can give them a sim­ple mobile phone, but no smart­phone before turn­ing 18 ought to be a new cul­tur­al trend.” 

Dig­i­tal detox 

In the mean­time, Samuel Veis­sière says that the short-term solu­tion before we see pub­lic health inter­ven­tion is to pro­mote “self-reg­u­la­tion”. That is to say find­ing a healthy bal­ance between our dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal lives.  In his most recent­ly study pub­lished this year, his team car­ried out a behav­iour­al inter­ven­tion aimed at study­ing the effects of a ‘dig­i­tal detox’ 5. “We mea­sured dif­fer­ent fac­tors before and after par­tic­i­pants stopped using their smart­phones,” he explains. The team want­ed to find out whether the neg­a­tive effects of smart­phones use could be reduced by tar­get­ing the mind­less, auto­mat­ic aspects of com­pul­sive smart­phone use. Their results point to a marked improve­ment in well-being, sleep and work­ing mem­o­ry as well as vast reduc­tions in screen time and prob­lem­at­ic smart­phone after a detox of just two weeks.

The par­tic­i­pants of the study are main­ly uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents in the 18–30 age brack­et – the cat­e­go­ry of peo­ple whose men­tal health is most affect­ed by smart­phone use. So, whilst it may not be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of some ‘high-con­cern’ groups like chil­dren, it does give an insight into what can be done to reduce neg­a­tive effects. 

“We used our results to pro­vide a list of ten sim­ple steps which smart­phone users can apply to make it more dif­fi­cult for them­selves to con­nect,” the researcher advis­es. Much of the steps are designed to make the process of using a smart­phone more effort­ful and less plea­sur­able, so as to decrease auto­mat­ic habits. Since his research indi­cates that smart­phone addic­tion is due to a con­di­tioned action, the reflex can be bro­ken (or de-con­di­tioned) by mak­ing it more challenging. 

“These include remov­ing the touch ID to make it hard­er to open the screen; turn­ing off noti­fi­ca­tions; switch­ing the screen to grey scale; remov­ing social media apps and lim­it­ing their use to a com­put­er; and keep­ing phones out­side the bed­room when sleep­ing. Essen­tial­ly, the objec­tive is to reduce your phone use to func­tions that are nec­es­sary for work and fam­i­ly and try to move as many activ­i­ties as pos­si­ble to rit­u­al­ly marked time on a com­put­er, or face-to-face when­ev­er pos­si­ble. A sort of ‘dig­i­tal min­i­mal­ism’, if you will.”


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