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Are millennials addicted to their phones? Is that even a thing that can happen?!

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Image Sources:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Nucleus_accumbens#/media/File:Nucleus_accumbens_sag.jpg
[♪ INTRO ].

Every day you find more news stories claiming how millennials are apparently doing it all wrong. They're killing industries, they're narcissistic, and they're addicted to their phones!

But most of these claims aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Like, for one, is a phone even something you can be addicted to? It's not like you’re literally shooting it into your veins.

You just like to check it... like a lot. You just kinda -- wait, wait. What are you doing?

Put that away! Turns out that psychologists think you can be addicted to things that aren't chemical substances. This is called a behavioral addiction, and it can do similar things to your brain, leading to similar types of habits and behaviors.

Still, there’s some disagreement over whether your phone or the internet can actually become one of those addictions. A black-and-white label probably won’t cut it. When most people talk about "addiction", the first thing they think of is a physical addiction.

That's usually the term for when we know exactly how a chemical interacts with your neurons, like nicotine in cigarettes. These addictions aren’t just about the good feelings someone gets. They’re also about things like tolerance and withdrawal, thinking about the substance a lot, feeling out of control, and getting in conflicts with others about their use.

But those effects and behaviors aren’t exclusive to physical addictions. They can happen even without a chemical substance, too -- and that's a "behavioral addiction." The DSM, which clinicians use to guide their diagnoses, even officially lists one of these: gambling addiction. These addictions happen because how you perceive and interpret things -- like winning some cash from a slot machine -- can change what neurotransmitters are flowing in your brain.

They can activate dopamine pathways that are associated with good feelings and seeking out more of those rewards. And conceivably, those things could eventually become an addiction just like nicotine. But where do phones fall in all of this?

Well, right now, the DSM does recognize behavioral addictions, but they don’t name phones or internet use specifically. The closest they get is mentioning that "internet gaming" needs more research. So, officially-speaking, you can’t be addicted to your phone.

At least not right now. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s case-closed. Phone addiction might not be officially diagnosable, but phones do check off some of the boxes on the list for behavioral addictions.

For instance, they and the social connections they provide definitely alter people's moods, and many people spend a lot of the day thinking about them. They’re also great at triggering the release of dopamine. In fact, notifications from your phone are kind of the optimal dopamine trigger.

We know from other research that if you want to get someone to do something a lot, you shouldn't reward them every time they do it. The rewards should also be kind of random. This is called intermittent reinforcement.

Thanks to studies done in mice and rats -- whose brains work kinda like ours -- we know it results in the most dopamine released in the reward centers of your brain. And it’s the same kind of reinforcement you get from your social media notifications, too. Only every once in a while do you see the red icon that signals a declaration of love from your crush -- or a funny video.

But that's enough to keep you frequently checking your phone throughout the day, just in case. Scientists can track your phone’s influence on your brain in other ways, too. For example, one of your brain’s reward centers, called the nucleus accumbens, activates in response to things like food and sex.

But it also activates in response to social rewards, like an increase in status or positive feedback from your friends. In one fMRI study of 31 young adults, how much they used social media was actually correlated with how big of a response their nucleus accumbens showed to social rewards. So all that to say, being attached to your phone can kind of seem like an addiction.

But for some of those other checkboxes of a behavioral addiction -- like tolerance, withdrawal, and loss of control -- the evidence is weaker that phones fit the bill. For example, in some studies, people say that they're uncomfortable when they don't have their phones -- which sounds kind of like withdrawal. But that's a hard case to make about a device that can also provide literal security and safely.

Like, phones make sure you always have a way to reach someone if there’s an emergency. So when it comes to phone use, "addiction" isn't necessarily the best word. There’s a little more to it than that, and we can’t wrap it up and put it in a box with a neat label.

All we can say is that, in some cases, it does look a lot like a behavioral addiction. But no matter what you call it, there's still some evidence that constantly checking your phone isn't great for you. Several studies have been done on "self-reported" phone addiction, asking people how much they use their phone and how it affects their mood and work.

One study like this surveyed 293 college students and found that self-reported addiction was associated with higher levels of stress, and lower life satisfaction. Other studies like it also found self-reported addiction was associated with lower GPAs, higher anxiety, and more reported neurotic traits. Admittedly, this kind of research is just correlational, and there are a lot of confounding variables.

Like, these results could happen because, say, more stressed people turn to their phones for relief. These responses also might depend not just on how much you use your phone, but also on what you're doing with it. For example, other studies show that using social networks a lot can improve your well-being... but only if you use them to increase connections with people you know in real life.

Passively scrolling through posts probably won’t create the same effect. At the end of the day, behavioral addictions are totally real, but our relationships with our phones are probably more complex than that. And, honestly, the software and technology in our devices changes so rapidly that its effects on our behaviors and brains are going to change, too.

Let's hope the science can keep up! And in the meantime, it’s probably okay to take a break from your phone every now and again. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

Unsurprisingly, there’s been a ton of research on phones and digital screens in the past few years -- and not just on young adults. There have also been studies about whether or not digital screens can affect child development. If you’d like to learn more, you can watch our video where I explain the research all about it. [♪ OUTRO ].