For the love of dopamine: Why is it so hard to put down our phones?

How many times have you picked up your phone and looked at something in the last hour, or over the last 24 hours? The average Brit checks their screen every 12 minutes, according to the latest research.

Is this your average? Do you find it hard not to check your phone every couple of minutes to see what your friends are up to? Do you respond to notifications as soon as they come in? If so, you’re not alone, and you might be interested to know that the phones themselves and the apps that are on them are designed by the developers to create this checking behaviour.

We asked Anna Bateman – Associate Mental Health Advisor at National Online Safety and resilience facilitator at Young Minds – to explain why we find it so hard to put our phones down.

The average Brit checks their screen every 12 minutes, according to the latest research

What makes us want to keep checking our phones?

Our phones are full of content we’ve chosen for ourselves, rather than content that’s chosen for us. This means we engage and connect with our phone and content differently to the way we engage with scheduled TV programmes.

You might also find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit. App developers are not relying on you to come to them whenever you have a bit of downtime, they want to grab your attention.

For example, push notifications make sure you keep picking up your phone to see what the announcement is and to see what you may have missed. It’s a bit like a friend saying ‘hey, come here have you seen this?!’ And it’s hard to resist.

The ‘variable ratio schedule’

Possibly the most addictive aspect of all apps and social media platforms, however, is a psychological technique often used in casinos and on gambling machines. It’s called a ‘variable ratio schedule’. When you use a slot machine, for example, every time you press the start button, there’s a chance you might win the jackpot, a small amount, or nothing at all. You might press the button again to see what will happen on the next spin of the machine in the hope that you might be rewarded with a large amount. You don’t know when you’ll be rewarded, just that you will be at some point if you keep going. So how does this apply to your phone? Well, when you scroll through Instagram, for example, you don’t know what content you are going to get: it’s random. Some of the pictures or posts will be the same, some of them will be different. There may be something new and enticing for us to engage with, or we may have received lots of likes for a social media post. The randomness of what we might discover keeps us going back to see what we will find on the next scroll through.

What happens to our brain when we get a ‘like’?

When we do get the reward: a like, a follower, comment or share of our post, it excites the brain and produces a chemical which you may have heard of called dopamine. This is a chemical that provides a ‘feel-good’ response to these rewards. Because it feels good, we are tempted to repeat the activity that created the good feeling. We can get a rush of dopamine during or after exercise, through closeness with someone, when we’ve had good food, had a laugh or enjoyed a positive social interaction. This dopamine hit can understandably become addictive, in that it encourages us to go back to our phones and scroll through again hoping for a reward and that feel-good dopamine that comes with it. This addictive loop is one of the biggest reasons why we are checking our phones every 12 minutes as well as the accessibility and portability of the actual phone itself.

This addictive loop is one of the biggest reasons why we are checking our phones every 12 minutes

How can we break the loop?

So, what are some of the ways we can break this addictive loop so that real life does not pass us by? The first is to turn off all notifications on your phone so that you are not distracted or tempted by the alluring messages. Next is to put your phone out of sight, in a drawer or in another room. This is particularly helpful if you are revising or have a project to get done. There are some apps which are designed to support you with this endeavour. Finally, look for and create opportunities for gaining a dopamine hit in other ways, for example through exercise or music.

Where to get support.

If you have been affected by anything in this article, visit Young Minds for more information about mental health and social media, and how to get support.

It is always good to speak to someone you trust about the issues you might be facing, no matter how big or small. Although it can be hard talking about mental health, it’s something that affects us all, and if you are having trouble, don’t feel ashamed or different, and don’t feel you have to hide away from it. Speaking to your GP or health professional can put you in contact with the right people who can help, and the support can be life changing.

You can also get support from Mind and the NHS

You can find more advice about how to manage your social media in our article on How to love yourself more (and social media less)

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Living for likes: How to have a healthier relationship with social media
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