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Smart Phone addiction explained: Part2

Do you experience a mild state of panic when you misplace your smartphone?

This state of panic or anxiety when you misplaced your smartphone is much the same unique emotion as for any other addiction, but only milder. This begs the question: “How does cellular addiction link to any other addiction and why is it so difficult to ignore your smartphone when beeping?” It must be emphasised that there is nothing inherently addictive about smartphones themselves but the pitfalls are the hyper-social environment attachments they provide and how our brains re-act on it.

Let us have a closer look at Dopamine and social reward as two of the pitfalls.

The human brain contains four major different dopamine pathways or connections acting as roads for chemical messages between different parts of the brain which we call neurotransmitters. Each pathway has its own associated cognitive and movement processes. Three of these pathways are reward pathways: (1) mesocortical, (2) mesolimbic, and (3) igrostriatal pathways. The fourth tuberoinfundibular pathway regulates the release of a hormone called prolactin which is required for the production of milk.

The 3 reward pathways form associations between a particular stimulus or sequence of behaviors and the feel-good reward that follows. This is exactly what smartphones have in common with other potential addictive behaviours. Every time a response to a stimulus results in a reward, these associations become stronger through a process called long-term potentiating.  In this way the brain forms neurons by increasing the intensity at which they respond to particular stimuli.

In essence dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that plays a central role in motivating our behaviour and it rewards us for satisfying behaviors and motivates us to repeat them. Dopamine is released when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and importantly, when we have successful social interactions.

In the same way positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behaviour preceded it.  Social stimuli reward such a message from loved ones, laughing faces or positive recognition by our peers activates the same dopamine reward pathways.

This is here where the trap is because our smartphones provides us with easily available and to uncontrolled supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Therefore every “text message beep”, a “like”, a “Facebook notification” etc., has the potential to be a social stimulus and dopamine influx.

The answer is that your brain acts the same with your smartphone rewards as any other potential addictive activity appliance or behaviour, creating a dependency “addiction” and good feeling.  My next blog will explain the three reward pathways: (1) mesocortical, (2) mesolimbic, and (3) igrostriatal pathways to understand addiction.  Thereafter I will make it clear how advertisers uses the brains’ Reward Prediction Error (RPE) Encoding to get us hooked and keep us hooked in the same way casino’s have manipulated players into addiction all along.

Smartphone addiction: Part 1

Smartphone usage dangers if you are a depressed person

The concern for psychologists is the research indicating more and more that smartphone users who struggle with their mental health are more likely to exceedingly use their smartphone as a form of therapy. They are also tending to escape their emotional state and are less careful in smartphone usage and time spent and thus more likely they are to be addicted to their phones.
• The predisposition for addiction is because people who experience problems in their lives such as stress, anxiety, depression, family problems, are in the time they are emotionally unstable may seek relief in very excessive smartphone use.
• Challenge starts when they use smartphones in a specific passive way spending a lot of time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, browsing , other peoples’ photos, comments of other peoples, and posts, and not posting anything of their own and not engaging in discussion.
• “Technoference” is a term referring to the everyday intrusions and interruptions that people experience due to mobile phones and their usage. Technoference researchers discovered a significant increase in people blaming their devices for “losing sleep, becoming less productive, taking more risks while driving and even getting more aches and pains.”
• Techoference impact would obviously aggravate symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety and related emotional challenges.
• The chemical reaction of the brain when using a smartphone is the same as cocaine: we get every time the screen lights up with an immediate new notification. It’s all thanks to dopamine which is the feel-good chemical that gets released every time you do something you enjoy. Dopamine reinforces and creates the repeating craving to experience the same feeling leading to behaviour that makes us feel good which in turn is how an addiction neuropath is laid.
It is therefore imperative that Psychologists include acceptable smartphone usage as an integral part of their therapy for the above mentioned patients. There is no sense in treating one problem which in turn could lead to more serious addictions.
Try the following digital detoxication tips.

  1. Be aware of the emotional state you are in when you use your phone
    • Don’t just go into autopilot, but consider why you pick up your smartphone:
    • Is it perhaps just a need to avoid a sense of boredom
    • Are you avoiding difficult emotions and busy to escape reality
    • Do you experience a feeling of being left out?
    • Do certain actions, like checking your email or social media, make you feel better or worse?
    • Awareness would assist you in preventing you to go into autopilot.
  2. Schedule your time to avoid smartphone addiction
    • Limit how many times you check your phone to once every 30 minutes schedule
    • Blocked out to times you use certain websites or apps
    • Do not use phones during meal time.
  3. Use your smartphone settings or one of the many apps available to increase your awareness of your data usage
    • Realizing exactly how much and for what you use data informing you how to use your smartphone
    • Try to use apps reporting overuse or enable you to set limits on data to be used.
  4. Recharge your phone in another room.
    Perhaps limiting your phone use during the day sounds too impractical. When charging your smartphone in a different room is a way to reconnect with body, mind, and self and not be in constant state of overstimulation of the mind. When you charge your smartphone in the room where you sleep you are subconsciously “awake” and “aware” of the smartphone being charged you do not really get to full REM sleep.

What is the impact on the community of the matric boy in Pretoria who committed suicide ?

The sad and shocking news of the suicide of a Pretoria Matric boy reached the community of Pretoria East on 24 July 2019.  Since then a month has gone by giving me time to reflect and observe as a psychologist how the incident unfolded.

As expected it was immediately reported that clergymen and psychologists were providing counselling to pupils of the school and all involved dealt professionally and admirably with the situation.

My focus is not on the causes, prevention or alarming rate of suicide as the second leading – and fastest growing – cause of death between the 15-24 age group. My focus is how it extended to the Menlopark community. Should the reader is interested in how to support and curb teenage suicide I recommend they read more on the webpage of South African Depression And Anxiety Group (www.sadag.org).  You will find valuable information and emergency lines on the webpage.

As stated above my focus is to reflect on the effect of suicide on the community.  It is estimated that 115 people are exposed to a single suicide according to a 2016 study, ”Exposure to Suicide in the Community: Prevalence and Correlates in One U.S. State, report in June 2016 by Cerel J , Maple M, Van de Venne J, Moore M, Flaherty C and Brown M.  Of the 115 community people exposed to the suicide, one in five reported that the experience had a devastating impact on him/her or caused a major-life disruption.  The implication is that it had a major impact on an estimated 23 community members. The reality is it could be any member and most probably it is a person not considered as very close to the deceased

Important to realise is that exposure to suicide has an impact beyond family. This hidden cohort of suicide-exposed people is at elevated risk for psychopathology and suicidal ideation.  In my case the news triggered my own experience some years ago as a psychologist in Pretoria where I served on a multi disciplinary panel working with suicidal patients where one of the senior physicians of the panel unexpectedly committed suicide.  I can still remember my guilt feelings, awareness of my lack of experience and shock for not being able to prevent the suicide.  One can imagine the impact her suicide had on the suicidal patients she supported or helped before. Therefore the unfortunate suicide of the young Pretoria East scholar impacted on me as one of the 23 community members.  Who are the other 22 and how seriously did the incident elevated their experiences?  Fortunately I had therapy and became more knowledgeable regarding suicide, how to cope with the effect of it and the signals and causes of suicide.  What support did the other 22 community members asked for or received?  The purpose of my question is not to blame or shame but to emphasise the reality that even in this case there are unknown exposed community members. Some of these community members may feel the impact in a way that feels similar to those closest to the person who had died. In a situation where the individual who committed suicide has struggled openly with mental health concerns, those who knew of the struggle will feel the pain of the loss and would most likely wonder if they could have done more. Community members who may not even have personally known the individual who died experiencing the same intensity of emotions as the close family

Since the time since the incident I am aware of a young person felt traumatised and started to struggle.  Typically this teen did not ask for counselling when it was offered.  This is not exceptional for teens not to expose themselves and this phenomenon is complicated. Just as complicated as the phenomenon that 75% of young people who know that a peer is suicidal will not seek help from an adult.  The challenge is to have sustainable networks to identify these members in order to support them.

Now that we know one incident impacts on a larger community and have an elevated risk on 1 in 5 people the question is what can be done.

Firstly we need to work on decreasing the stigma because one of the major negative sides of stigma is that it only leads to silence. Silence about a suicide loss does leave people feeling isolated, as if they are facing this tragedy alone. When someone dies by suicide, the aftermath opens up an immediate opportunity to talk about suicide at a personal level. How you feel, the emotions evoked in you, what you think and feel. This opportunity should be recognised and longer term forums, platforms or organisations should be put in place to be available long after the incident. The impact of a death by suicide becomes confusing as the grapevine usually distorts actual facts.  Communicating and sharing the actual facts of the suicidal circumstances and history usually serve to start the healing process for the close members and community members.  It also serves to prevent the destructive myths of suicide.

To decrease the stigma is also the responsibility of public health as it affects all of us and it is in this arena that organisations such as the South African Depression And Anxiety Group where they contribute in a commendable way. The establishment of community groups such as faith communities are in the position to convene forums for people to come together to mourn and receive support.  Peer support from people who have lost a loved one to suicide proved to be very healing.  It is very encouraging and healing to know you are not alone and to connect with others who have also experienced suicide loss.

Decreasing the stigma, organising support groups, and paying attention to a suicidal death in a community increases our collective awareness of suicide as a problem and highlights suicide prevention as a need.

It is common to find valuable sustained forums and support groups established by a community who was exposed to such a suicide incident with the aim to prevent suicide or to support others experiencing suicide incidents.

I trust that this information would sensitise all involved in suicide of the impact one incident has on the family but especially the unknown community members.  Who knows what sustainable initiatives might evolve within the specific Pretoria East Community originating from the unfortunate death of this remarkable young scholar to help others in the community and beyond in future?

Wim Slabbert (Psychologist Menlopark).