How and why are our screens so addictive?

If we don’t understand this, we can’t beat any problem that might occur involving over-use of screens, either in ourselves or people we care about. If we don’t understand the compulsion properly, psychologically and biologically, we will carry on blindly telling people to “use screens less”, “put them away”, “have better self-control”. It’s like telling an addict to quit cigarettes/alcohol/chocolate/cocaine/gambling – if you tell people who have a dependency simply to say no to their temptations, you miss the point and your pleas fall on weak ears. You also then make them/yourself feel guilty and inadequate when they/you can’t comply.

Our screens (particularly smartphones and portable internet-enabled devices) are tempting, delicious and addictive for something very like the same reasons as those other more obviously addictive substances or pastimes are and we need to understand why. Only then can we take control of our compulsions and help others do the same.

No two addictions are identical, so addiction to screens is not the same as addiction to cocaine, either in intensity or effect. But the same reward pathways in the brain (the mesolimbic pathways) are involved, production of the same chemical, dopamine, the thrill/pleasure neurotransmitter. So there is a strong similarity in process.

Research into these brain reward pathways has been going on for very many years. Olds and Milner produced the seminal research in the 195os, looking at the brains of rats and showing how tempting it is to keep on triggering the reward pathways once one has the mechanism to do so. (In the research, the rats had the means to prress a lever and therefore stimulate their reward centres directly.) To cut several long stories short, this research and the subsequent studies into both rats and humans show the following:

  • we have reward centres in the brain which become active when we do certain things
  • this activation is pleasurable – and anticipation of it is pleasurable
  • it is so pleasurable that we will seek that pleasure a lot
  • and, crucially (and this is often ignored) that there are certain circumstances in which we are less likely to keep pressing that pleasure trigger: specifically when we have good reasons not to and when we have better self-control. (It was discovered that rats in a rich and stimulating environment didn’t necessarily press the lever and we know that humans do not necessarily become addicted to behaviours or substances that are potentially addictive.) 

So, we love to press that pleasure button but we are not necessarily going to be addicted. We can stop pressing the button but some people are better at stopping than others and some circumstances allow us to stop more easily than others. So addiction to addictive substances is not inevitable and circumstances can help or hinder.

One of the circumstances that helps us stop is wanting to stop and understanding why it would benefit us to control our use. If we don’t realise that eating chocolate whenever we feel like chocolate is going to lead to problems with dental decay and weight gain, we might indeed eat chocolate more than we should. If we don’t realise that looking at our screens all the time might lead to problems such as lack of physical activity, loss of work time, loss of friends and fractured concentration, we might indeed continue to do it.

That – knowledge and understanding – is the first step to healthy behaviour but understanding why our screens our potentially compelling is also important. We need to create strategies that accommodate the biological temptation. So, we have to understand the temptation of screens.

The temptation arises from the fact that we are programmed – by evolutionary pressures towards survival and success – to be certain things and have certain behaviours. Being programmed or wired towards certain behaviours means that when we perform them – or anticipate performing them – we are rewarded by a little buzz of dopamine. Pleasure!

We are wired to like sweet tastes because sweet foods contain calories and we need calories to survive. If we were never hungry, we wouldn’t eat.

So, what are we wired to be that is relevant to screens? Three things.

First, social.

Stop bingeing on social media! The Teenage Guide to Life Online by Nicola Morgan discusses the use of social media for both teenagers and adultsHumans need their groups and social networks of people they can rely on. We humans do well as a species because we collaborate; we individuals do well when we have friends and colleagues and we do badly in terms of mental health when we are excluded from networks of people. Social networks require action on our part, otherwise they don’t happen, so we are rewarded each time we do something that builds social bonds.

Our phones, screens and social media offer us endless opportunities to be social.

Second, curious.

That is my daughter’s BAFTA trophy. She won it when she and a friend, both working in junior roles in the film production business, were curious as to what what happen if they crowdfunded and produced a short film. My daughter was the Producer and her friend was the Director and, to cut a long story short, they created the short film Operator, which went on to win Best British Short Film at the 2015 BAFTAs. (You can watch it here. Please do! It’s shorter than ten minutes but you’ll be gripped.)

We are wired to be curious because being curious brings us knowledge, opportunities, success. It’s also risky but taking risks is good for our survival and success.

Our screens give us endless opportunities for being curious: all those things to click, all those chances to discover things and do things.

Third, distracted.

If the hunter had been so focused on his prey that he didn’t see the lion stalking him from the left (that lion pic was taken by me in an open-vehicle) or the gatherer so focused on gathering that the snake in the grass went unnoticed, the hunter or gatherer would be dead. Distractibility is built into us.

There’s also a curiosity factor here. Did you click on the link to my daughter’s BAFTA film? If you did, it’s because you were distracted and curious – distracted by the opportunity to see something interesting. If you didn’t, you spent some time and brain energy resisting the temptation to do what you are wired to do: be curious. And you were still distracted. Every time you see a hyperlink and resist the temptation to click on it, you’ve lost some attention, some focus on the task you were engaged on.

And our screens are endlessly distracting.

So, our smartphones and tablets – and, to a lesser extent our laptops but only because they are not in our hands or pockets all the time – provide us with endless opportunities to be three things we are wired to be: social, curious and distracted.

It’s like being in a sweet shop where everything is free and freely available.

How do we avoid eating too many sweets/using our phones too much?

  1. First, we arm ourselves with knowledge about why we shouldn’t eat too many/use too much. That knowledge gives us some motivation.
  2. Second, we decide whether we are eating/using too many/much and what would be a healthy amount. There are no science-based rules about this so we use our intuition and honesty. If we are suffering no ill effects, there’s not a problem.
  3. If we want to reduce or control our use of phones/devices, we do the following:
    • Remove temptation from sight – put our devices away and out of reach when not using them
    • Allow ourselves to use them when we decide it’s fine to do so
    • Feel good about ourselves when we get it right
    • Help each other by communally switching off
    • Keep reminding ourselves why we are doing this
    • Make achievable, health-based rules for ourselves, including switching off 1.5 hours before bed, not having phones present at meals or when someone wants to talk to us
    • Make sure we do some activities where phones are not involved or needed – that switch off time feels good
    • Notice how good we feel when we have used our devices well and healthily and when we have worked well
    • Build in distraction strategies to deal with temptation: if we feel tempted to pick up our phones when we’re supposed to be working, for example, do something else instead – pick up your glass of water, for example. (This is an example of an IF/THEN strategy for self-control which Walter Mischel talks about. I’ll talk about it in more detail another time but meanwhile do read Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How To Master It.)

If you think about it, all those good behaviours or rules apply whatever substance or behaviour you’re trying to control. It’s all about understanding why you’d want to control usage better and then putting in place common sense guidelines to make that control easier.

Understanding and accepting that these devices are strongly tempting, and why, is an important basis for good control. Simply saying “stop doing it” denies biology and is likely to fail. Telling an alcoholic to stop drinking doesn’t work.


The Teenage Guide to Life Online is published next week and has much more about this, including, importantly, many of the negatives that we need to avoid. Just as we have to understand why too many sweets are bad for us or why alcohol can cause problems, so we need to understand properly the possible negatives of certain online behaviours or usage. TTGLifeOnline has it all – a balanced look at positive and negatives of our beautiful, tempting, wonderful gadgets.

I do talks on this subject, of course. If you’re thinking of booking me, don’t delay, as I tend to be booked far ahead. I have almost no availability for 2018 and have already taken bookings for July 2019. But don’t be afraid to ask – I might be able to fit something in!

Meanwhile, two things for you:

  1. A competition for schools – great prizes and really easy to enter – deadline June 8th. Please tell your school librarian or a teacher.
  2. And a pick-me giveaway – enter now! You could win a signed copy of TTGLO or Positively Teenage.

One Response

  1. The way you have written this article was extremely easy to understand, the use of examples made it simpler for the concept to be grasped and the vocabulary used was broad and interesting, i also enjoyed how you wrote the solutions making sure that the reader gets enough information to be able to overcome the particular problem without researching any further.

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