Neurological Impact on Dependency on Devices and Social Media


To be honest, I didn’t even know how to use a computer before the pandemic. I preferred paper and pens and, combined with the fact that computers were rarely allowed in class, there was really no need to get one for daily use. That certainly changed when we were quarantined in the spring of 2020. I remember calling my friends to ask how to upload a PowerPoint on Google drive. Something that seems so basic and trivial now seemed so foreign to me then. Once we were doing online school, all this changed. My computer quickly became my life and my connection to the world. This relationship had its benefits and drawbacks. 

It is great having a single place that has pretty much all of your schoolwork. That being said, this consolidation resulted in the disruption of the balance of school life and home life. I would be leaving my desk to take a break and hear, “ding!,” notifying me of an incoming message from Microsoft Teams. I’d run back to my computer, thinking a test or assignment had been graded. Not to mention my screen time skyrocketed, and not just because school was online. Before, I would be able to come to school without my phone or not use my phone for extended periods of time. Now, I felt that I had to bring my phone everywhere. When I wasn’t in Zoom classes or in between small breaks between classes that were not long enough to do something productive, I would resort to my phone. My computer was my academic life and my phone was my entertainment, my way of passing time. Even though spending a few minutes on Pinterest or watching a small Youtube video may seem harmless, the time I was spending on my device was rapidly increasing without me consciously knowing.  It was essentially an addiction I was unaware of. Additionally, some days I only had a few hours of schooling, including Zoom and homework, but I would still wait until 11:00 P.M. to start a lot of it. Because I lacked motivation since I was away from school, I would sit at my desk from 8:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. to feel like I was doing work when the reality was that I was on my phone with the occasional glance at my to-do list. 

From this, I personally found that there are more than a few benefits to separating yourself from your devices. It reduces stress, especially if your computer is where you work, where you learn, take exams, write essays, and send emails. We often hear our parents talking about doing something useful with our time and not wasting it on our devices. And while this sounds just like white noise, there is some validity to what they are saying (surprisingly!). When someone says to not do something, it makes us want to do it more. This phenomenon occurs because we feel like our freedom of choice is being limited by the word “no”. When relating this to the use of personal devices, what we are left with is a very real addiction.

Similar to drug addictions, a phone addiction also has a very similar neurological base. It depends on what exactly it is that we are addicted to on our phones. Whether this is a game, a social media platform, your email, or other apps, the impact is still the same. Our brains have a region called the reward center which releases dopamine when exposed to a stimulus that is rewarding. Typically, this is in response to things like eating something yummy or getting a good grade on an exam–something conventionally rewarding. However, it may also be in response to using your devices like your phone. This is where it gets a little bit more complex. You see, there is something called classical conditioning, a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus

Let’s apply this to our phones. For the sake of this example, let’s also assume that we have our phones with us for the majority of the day. You are doing your homework when you hear a notification: “ding”. You know that you need to finish this assignment and that you have a lot of work to finish for tonight. But, what could that message entail? You recall that earlier today your friend was talking about how they wanted to plan a small hangout with you and some of your other friends. What if it is about that? What if she needs an answer right now? These questions are pretty much subconscious–you are not actively thinking of them but you can’t get the thought of the notification out of your head. So you pick up the phone and you were right! It was a message from your friend about the hangout. It wasn’t an emergency but you were still right. This association, when practiced for long enough, gets strengthened and, eventually, it leads to us picking up our phones every time we hear or see a notification. Separation from our devices may also result in paranoia in the case that we miss something important. 

Being addicted to certain apps on our phones can also decrease our attention spans. Tik Tok, for example, has a “For You Page” that includes short clips (around 10-20 seconds) that are tailored to your interests. Because they are so small, we don’t think much of “just one more video” but seconds quickly turn into hours without us realizing it. The quick clips also allow us to change from one video to another if it isn’t interesting. It prevents us from experiencing boredom. This idea has increased during the pandemic and when Tik Tok was introduced, but it has been around since phones have been invented and heavily used. One statistic shows that since the start of the mobile device era (around 2000), human attention spans have decreased from 12 to 8 seconds

Separation from our devices is very important to our health. Of course, students in online classes and people who still have to work through their computers can’t shut down their devices for an entire day. But any time away from them, no matter how little, is a step closer to overcoming this addiction many may not know they have. Spend your free time doing other things you enjoy that are equally entertaining. And while the pandemic has made going out safely difficult, you can still do creative activities at home or go on a walk in your neighborhood. Our devices are important and very useful in our day-to-day lives, but be careful in overusing it as it may affect us in a way that we can’t see.