Smartphones: The flip side that no one saw coming

Written by Vyoma Shah

One cannot deny the immense use of smartphones in everyday life. From taking a cab to ordering food or finding romantic relationships, it’s all within one tiny magic box that fits in your pocket. In fact, scientists have been working on software that can tell you if you are intoxicated based on your idiosyncratic gait using the motion sensors in your phone. However, in a world full of people seeing the benefits of smartphones, we have forgotten one of nature’s basic rules: every benefit comes at a cost. 

We have come to a point where the Internet isn’t necessarily making our lives simpler, but instead gives rise to new problems, like Internet addiction. Let’s face it, all of us have said “oh, just 2 minutes on Youtube” only to realise it’s been 2 hours! But have we ever wondered why we go down this rabbit hole and what makes the Internet so gluing?  It doesn’t end there. What makes us so panicky when we merely think that we have lost our phone? What makes us keep checking our phones every now and then for notifications? Why do we believe that our phone vibrated or rang even if it didn’t? Well, to put it simply, it’s the spell of algorithms, coupled with basic human functioning, that leads to all these behaviours. 

In the early 1900s, Ivan Pavlov and B.F Skinner, two influential psychologists, introduced the concept of behaviourism in psychology. The idea of classical conditioning, i.e. rewarding certain behaviours and punishing others, is now used, a century later, by the techies in Silicon Valley and worldwide. The data scientists build algorithms that give a dopamine rush either through a “Like” notification or suggesting a video you might like. These algorithms are adaptable in nature, so with changes in an individual’s tastes, the suggestions also change. 

Through the behavioural school of thought, the rewards, such as the “Likes” and comments on one’s posts, the error in prediction of the rewards, such as not getting enough likes on a post, or classical conditioning, such as thinking that using a certain type of filter will give you more likes on a picture, have literally modified our behaviour. And for some of us, this has caused an addiction which is very similar to any other behavioural addiction, like gambling or binge eating. The Internet and other kinds of behavioural addictions are associated with dysfunction in the dopaminergic pathways. There are four dopaminergic pathways in our brain, namely, nigrostriatal, mesolimbic, mesocortical and tuberoinfundibular. These pathways get activated during one’s physical movements, emotional responses, as well as regular bodily functions like sleep and hunger. More so, these pathways also get activated when we get rewards, which in turn makes us feel better and happier. Once we feel that way, we keep repeating the behaviour to get the dopamine hit. 


A good example is Facebook’s “Like” button. Sean Parker, the co-founder of Facebook, said that “Facebook creates a social validation feedback loop”. This means that every time an individual gets a like, they receive a signal that their peers agree with them (i.e., social validation), which leads to a dopamine hit. Our ancestors were wired to get social validation, as it meant better survival, and this instinct is still within us in the 21st century. Once we receive a like from our fellow humans as social validation, together with the associated dopamine hit, we end up posting more to get more external validation and more dopamine, making it an endless loop. 


But what about the situations when we haven’t gotten the reward yet? Jaron Lanier says in his book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now”, that it is the uncertainty that keeps us more engaged than the certainty. This phenomenon can be explained by the prediction coding framework in our brains. The brain constantly makes predictions about the future and then attempts to minimize the predictive error, i.e. the difference between expected and received rewards. When the predictive error is high, this generates an arousal in the brain which leads to increased efforts towards reducing this error. In the Facebook example, that would translate as: you post a picture and you expect 200 likes, but you don’t know how many you will actually get (your prediction error is high), so you check every 30 seconds to see how many more likes you have received, because your brain is trying to minimize the difference between expected (200 likes) and received reward.

The predictive coding framework also offers a good explanation for how behavioural changes occur. Dopamine neurons in the midbrain of humans get activated by higher reward than predicted (positive prediction error), remain at baseline activity for fully predicted rewards, and show depressed activity with less reward than predicted (negative prediction error). Prediction errors include the reward itself (Likes on a picture one posted) and the prediction of the reward (100 Likes) . The reward could be better than, equal to, or worse than its prediction. The future behaviour will change depending on the experienced difference between the reward and its prediction. If the reward is different from its prediction, the prediction error is said to be existent, which means the prediction will update and there will be change in behavior. Specifically, if the reward is better than predicted (positive prediction error; e.g., 200 Likes instead of 100) the frequency of the behaviour will increase (posting similar kinds of pictures). If the reward is worse than predicted (negative prediction error;e.g., 50 Likes instead of 100) the frequency of the behaviour will decrease (posting other kinds of pictures). However, if the reward is exactly as predicted, there is no prediction error and the behaviour will remain the same. 

It cannot be contested that the online world is very different from the offline world, however, the emotions attached to this virtual world are as real as the emotions in the real one. Because of constant unaware conditioning, one tends to develop positive as well as negative feelings. And there is a plethora of studies which indicate that negative emotions build up faster and stay longer than the positive ones. And whenever the reinforcement, that is a like or comment from a friend, a piece of article that matches your ideas or a video that you would watch on repeat is absent, the reinforcement is halted, which causes negative feelings to develop, leading to anger or fearfulness. The absence of reinforcement means no dopamine hit, and it leads to behaviours seen in Internet addicts similar to other addiction disorders.

The level of stress, insomnia, low mood, loneliness and addictiveness have increased with the increase in smartphone use. In 2014, scientists found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for 20 minutes compared to those who just browsed the internet. Another study suggests that production of the sleeping hormone melatonin is disrupted when people use smartphones and laptops right before sleeping, causing sleep disturbances. Yet another study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine surveyed 7,000 19 to 32-year-olds and found that those who spent the most time on social media were twice as likely to report experiencing social isolation, which can include a lack of a sense of social belonging, as well as engagement with others and fulfilling relationships. Another study suggests that between 55% to 82% of teenagers and young adults use social networking sites on a regular basis. Extracting information from peers’ social networking sites is an activity that is experienced as especially enjoyable and it has been linked with the activation of the appetitive system, which in turn is related to addiction experience.  


There has been evidence that structurally, at a molecular level, our brains change. There have been studies showing decrease in grey, as well as white matter in the brain of Internet addicts. Changes appear in areas associated with movement, memory, language, emotions and executive functioning such as cerebellum, brainstem, right cingulate gyrus, bilateral parahippocampus, right frontal lobe, left superior frontal gyrus, right inferior temporal gyrus , left superior temporal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus. Moreover, with the increase in Internet use over time, more brain atrophy was observed. Changes in amplitude and latency of P300, an electric impulse generated by the brain which is generally attributed to attention allocation, was also observed. On the molecular level, individuals with Internet addiction showed reduced levels of dopamine D2 receptor availability in subdivisions of the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway like bilateral dorsal caudate and right putamen.Although there is a dark side to smartphones and the Internet, one cannot ignore their tremendous utility. We live in an era where it is almost impossible to work efficiently without a smartphone or Internet service. Hence, people have come up with middle ground solutions that save us from the downward spiral described above. To maintain focus, it is suggested to turn off notifications, not to accept website cookies, other than the necessary ones ,not to click on recommended videos on Youtube, and to delete your accounts on social networking sites. Although these steps might sound harsh, they are strongly suggested by experts who have looked closely at phenomena of behavioural addiction, which could be more dangerous than drug addiction.

Would you like to know more? Check out these useful links, videos, and papers. And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to stay up-to-date with our most recent posts.

Reduced striatal dopamine D2 receptors in people with Internet addiction

Internet and Gaming Addiction: A Systematic Literature Review of Neuroimaging Studies

Brain Structures Associated with Internet Addiction Tendency in Adolescent Online Game Players 

Book: Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

Netflix Documentary: The Social Dilemma

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