Using a smartphone while driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk, if not more. So what is it about smartphones that is so addictive, and why is it so dangerous?
The danger part is easy to see. Distracted driving is much like driving drunk. Distracted drivers don’t pay attention to what is going on around them and cause crashes. John Foy, of John Foy & Associates, says that “Distracted driving is a leading cause of crashes and is just as dangerous as drunk driving or driving while fatigued. Yet there is no social stigma against distracted driving. The common thought is that everyone does it and that somehow makes it okay.”
In fact, some studies say that it can be as much as six times worse than driving drunk.
The Reasons For Addiction
One of the big reasons we’re so addicted is intermittent reinforcement. This is a concept from psychology about how we react when we get a reward. If we do an action and don’t get a reward, or get punished, we tend not to do it again. If we get the same reward every time, we get bored after a while. But if we don’t know when the reward will come and know the reward is possible, then we will do the behavior over and over again in the hope of getting the reward. This is intermittent reinforcement of behavior.
Every time our smartphones buzz in our pockets, we get excited to see what will be on the screen. We don’t know if it’ll be an important message, a boring one, or just a notice of updates. What happens is that every time we pick up the phone to check we’re reinforcing the behavior thanks to the dopamine we get when we’re motivated to check the phone.
Dopamine is often seen as a reward chemical produced by our brains, but it’s actually a motivator chemical. Dopamine pushes us to go after rewards of any kind. In our biology, it’s what motivates us to pursue food, mates, security, and other things necessary for survival and procreation.
When we do an action spurred by dopamine and achieve the reward, dopamine spikes to make us want to do it again the next time we see the stimulus. The same thing happens with all addictions. A recent article in the New York Times posits that the drop in teen drug use may be directly correlated to increased smartphone use.
It’s especially interesting to observe what happens when someone breaks or loses their phone. Some addicts become panicked. The feelings of unease and dependence we have on our phones have been called nomophobia by researchers, short for no mobile-phone phobia. It’s a new area of study, but questionnaires have already been developed about the phenomenon so studies can be created. Expect to hear this word crop up more frequently over the next few years.
We’d like to posit that there are two core reasons why there isn’t more backlash against this addiction compared to, say, drug or gambling addictions. The first is that smartphones are everywhere. It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t own one and refuses to use one. Thus there is a strong feeling that everybody does it. Second, the social downsides of smartphone addiction haven’t hit society hard enough yet to make enough people wake up about the problem and take action.
Granted, states have strong distracted driving laws. It’s a huge danger. But as long as smartphones remain addictive the problem won’t go away.