How Smart Phones and Technology Affect Mental Health

What is the Twitch?

The twitch can be that feeling of “I need to check my
phone”. You may be in a setting of slight vulnerability such as standing in a
queue or waiting for a friend to turn up. The twitch is the movement of your
hand going towards your phone before you’ve even decided you need to look at
it. An automatic learnt behaviour. The twitch. It can also be an escape for
some people of the awkward embarrassment of being in that moment. So the short
term reward is to distract yourself away from this immediate uncomfortable
feeling. The downside, is this means that any uncomfortable feeling can become
less tolerable. But like all behaviour this can be unlearned.

The Psychology

Behaviour and Neuroscience

In the 1950s a behavioural psychologist called BF Skinner
discovered that intermittent reward was far more likely to increase behaviour.
This means receiving reward some of the time that is unpredictable and
unexpected. He put pigeons in what’s become known as the “skinner box”. Inside
the box was a lever that would activate a food pelate being released into the
box for the pigeon to eat.  The pigeon
soon learned that activating the leaver would result in food/ reward. One of
the key findings was that if they varied the regularity of the reward to make
it unpredictable and unexpected, the regularity of pressing the lever
significantly increased. The same principles apply to the design of smart
phones and social media.  The unexpected
reward such as likes, hearts, comments, messages, responses, the little red
message sign over the app. These all activate the dopamine reward system in
your brain. Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter relating to pleasure.
The correct levels of dopamine in the brain are important for good mental
health. Too low, and there can be an absence of motivation and drive to achieve
things. Too high and this has been linked with schizophrenia. Taking cocaine
which can initially increase dopamine levels will ultimately deplete the levels
in the brain and lead to compulsion to take more cocaine in the search of the
same feeling. The same principle is true for people who are addicted to
gambling. The technology taps into the dopamine reward system and hooks people
in. Have you ever felt like you can’t put your phone down. A compulsion to keep
scrolling or checking your phone. The comparisons can be made. The endless
scrolling of a smart phone screen with the anticipation of a comment or like, isn’t
that far away from a pigeon pressing a leaver for a food pellat.



Humans are social animals so the need to belong is a
fundamental need. Social media is a method of connecting with those we love and
want to share time with, which can be incredibly fulfilling. For the vast
majority of us fitting in is important, especially during adolescence when further
developing identity and individualism. We’re able to stay in touch, see what
someone is doing half way across the world, share opinions with our friends.
But we’re also able to see what other people are doing and if there is a
tendency dedicate significant time to scrolling through posts, to compare
ourselves critically to others. I have noticed in my practice how people often
say “it all seems a bit fake” and then post only the more “positive” aspects of
themselves.   But it can be useful to
understand what psychology Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies
are tapping into.


The technology companies have designed their products in
such a way to encourage more attention from the user. Indeed, this is how they
make their money by selling your attention. The intermittent reward systems tap
into what Skinner discovered in the 1950s. That behaviour can be manipulated
for the possibility of short-term reward.

If you feel you can’t help but check your phone. That you
have to. That you have no choice, then perhaps some of the below suggestions
can help.


What we can do.

Ad blocker

Monitor smart phone usage – moment, quality time
app – tracks smart phone usage.

Deciding to be present in the conversation when you’re
with someone.

Turn off notifications from social media.

Be aware of the twitch – go outside without your

Delete apps that don’t bring you value

Schedule in time that you will check Facebook
and twitter

Find a replacement for the phone twitch. – pick
up a book, make some tea etc

New browser

Limiting screen time

Screen black and white

Putting your phone in a different room when you
go to bed. Not using it as  an alarm

Having an old manual phone with a keyboard