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What’s the science behind tech addiction?

“How to Break Up With Your Phone” author Catherine Price explains on the latest Too Embarrassed to Ask.

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“How to Break Up With Your Phone” author Catherine Price
“How to Break Up With Your Phone” author Catherine Price
Catherine Price

Last week on Too Embarrassed to Ask, we heard how the attendees of the Code Media conference were trying to mediate their various tech addictions.

But if you’re trying to use tech less, it might be helpful to consider: Are you really addicted? What is going on in your brain when you find yourself picking up your phone 12 times per hour?

“Our brains really like being distracted,” said Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone.” “We do not have a natural tendency to be able to focus on things, which makes sense if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective — there might be something that’s trying to kill you, so you want to notice if there’s movement in the periphery of your vision or whatever.”

Price told Recode’s Kara Swisher, The Verge’s Lauren Goode and — bonus guest! — Kara’s son Louie that she does support using the word “addiction” to describe how a lot of people use their phones. Referring to data about the five million users of the app Moment, provided to her by that app’s developer, she said tech is “triggering the same circuits and chemicals in your brain that typify addiction.”

“The average person is spending four hours a day on their phone, and that does not count phone calls or listening to music — it’s just times when the screen is on,” Price said. “To me, that was a really striking number. That’s a quarter of our waking lives.”

You can listen to the new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Price mediated which Swisher — Kara or Louie — is more addicted to their phone, and offered some habits and tricks that everyone can adopt to develop a healthier relationship with their smartphones. She also explained some of the brain science behind what we commonly call “addiction.”

“In particular, we’re talking about dopamine, which is a ‘salience chemical,’” Price said. “It basically tells you when you’ve encountered something interesting that’s worth remembering and paying attention to. And that could be good or bad — some kind of emotional excitement or relevance.”

“So if you think about what happens when you check your phone, you are nearly guaranteed to always find something, whether it’s a text or an irritating email or a post that makes you mad or something that makes you happy, whatever — there’s going to be a trigger,” she added. “When that happens, your brain releases a little bit of dopamine, and that basically is teaching your brain that it’s important to check your phone, which makes you want to check your phone more.”

And if you’re already using your phone, for example scrolling through the endless waterfall of tweets in the Twitter app, that can be dangerous because there’s no-built in cue for your brain to stop seeking more and more short bursts of dopamine.

“I think of it as like if you’re binging on ice cream,” Price said. “Your spoon will eventually hit the bottom of the pint of ice cream, and that’s called a ‘stopping cue.’ It’s something that makes you stop what you’re doing and decide if you want to continue. You could continue if you got up and got more ice cream, but you’d have to be proactive about it. With social media feeds, there’s nothing like that. It’s deliberately meant to keep us going and going.”

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If you like this show, you should also check out our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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