We may be glued to our smartphones because of an evolutionary drive for socializing, rather than a technological addiction to them, new research suggests.
The desire to watch and monitor others, but also to be seen and monitored by others, runs deep in our evolutionary past, explains Samuel Veissière, a cognitive anthropologist who studies the evolution of cognition and culture.
Humans evolved to be a uniquely social species and require constant input from others to seek a guide for culturally appropriate behavior. This is also a way we find meaning, goals, and a sense of identity.
In a study in Frontiers in Psychology, Veissière and Moriah Stendel, researchers in the psychiatry department at McGill University, reviewed current literature on dysfunctional use of smart technology through an evolutionary lens, and found that the most addictive smartphone functions all shared a common theme: they tap into the human desire to connect with other people.
While smartphones harness a normal and healthy need for being social, Veissière says that the pace and scale of hyper-connectivity pushes the brain’s reward system to run on overdrive, which can lead to unhealthy addictions.
“In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease… the pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theater of hyper-social monitoring,” the authors write in the paper.
“There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic,” says Veissière. “We’re trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this.”
Steps to regain control over your smartphone use:
- Relax and celebrate the fact your addiction reflects a normal urge to connect with others
- Turn off push notifications and set appropriate times to check your phone intentionally
- Create “intentional protocols” with friends, family, and work circles to set clear expectations on when to communicate
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Research also suggests that workplace policies “that prohibit evening and weekend emails” are important.
“Rather than start regulating the tech companies or the use of these devices, we need to start having a conversation about the appropriate way to use smartphones,” says the professor in a recent interview. “Parents and teachers need to be made aware of how important this is.”