Is your phone giving you ADHD?
ADHD is linked to a lack of dopamine - the neurotransmitter associated with pursuit, pleasure and reward. This can cause sufferers to feel under-stimulated by regular activities. Their brain is always chasing stimulation, which isn't always pleasant or productive. Getting irrationally angry or switching back and forth between tasks are perfect examples of a dopamine-hungry brain making poor decisions.
Adults with ADHD often struggle with impulse control, a hyperactive mind, and maintaining focus. It's much less a case of hyperactivity and laziness that we associate with distracted children, but more so an atypical difficulty in sustaining and organizing intentions, which impacts productivity, socialising and emotional regulation.
ADHD is quite trendy right now. As the stigma around mental illness has decreased, it's also made certain conditions quite popular with people who want to feel unique or signal to others how hard they've got it.
I do not have ADHD, and I have naturally sufficient levels of dopamine. In 2019 I developed some mild ADHD-like symptoms, which I've struggled with ever since, but I do not attribute this to ADHD or tech.
I'm reluctant to self-diagnose or label myself with a disease, especially given how debilitating it is for other people, though I suspect that it is far more common than we think - it's just not always obvious because it presents itself in so many ways and at varying intensities, and perhaps we are all sit somewhere on the ADHD-spectrum. Nevertheless, it's worth writing about as a cathartic practice, and worth sharing in case it helps one other person. I'll tie it in with smartphones and tech to keep it relevant to our business.
Do any of these things resonate with you?
> You can't follow most of what you watch, read or listen to
> You struggle to organise your thoughts and efforts
> Social interactions are stressful because you are constantly self-monitoring instead of listening
> You conduct extensive internal monologues with yourself and others
> You feel like being present, relaxing or enjoying something requires effort
> Everything seems to take you longer or require more effort as a result of distraction or procrastination
> You don't know how to spend your time because everything feels like a waste of time
> You have an abnormal relationship with food and other substances
These things seem easy to other, "normal" people, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot function with such seemingly effortless prowess. You try and fail to engage like everyone around you, and this makes you feel alienated.
I think everyone drifts off or gets distracted from time to time. It's the intensity and the frequency of these moments and the associated feelings of frustration that make it an issue for some people. ADHD affects 3-5% of adults, but I'm sure that more than 5% would be able to relate to this post so far.
The smartphone is perfectly designed for anyone who seeks comfort or stimulation in certain activities such as doomscrolling. This could be ADHD, or it could simply be procrastination. Instant access to endless feeds is like digital cocaine for the unfocused mind. Every time you feel bored, uncomfortable or overwhelmed, you can pull out your phone and disappear down a rabbit hole for several hours - until you get bored of that, at which point you can just switch to another app: Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, puzzle games etc., and repeat the cycle over and over, coming back to a fresh and exciting feed every time. Even if you uninstall specific culprit apps, you'll find yourself organising photos, checking the weather and skimming articles you have no interest in. Anything to avoid doing what you need to do or just sitting alone with your thoughts.
It's important to differentiate between ADHD and internet addiction, which have similar symptoms but are distinctly different. Using technology to escape reality, neglecting relationships and responsibilities, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms are signs of a technology addiction. ADHD is a chronic condition and symptoms tend to be present during other activities.
One study demonstrated higher levels of distraction and anxiousness when participants received constant notifications from their smartphones compared to when notifications were disabled. This group also reported inattentiveness and boredom. Silence and a distraction-free environment make it easier for people to focus on work, so this is hardly surprising.
However, several other studies have demonstrated a long-lasting effect: those who spend more time on their smartphones show greater impulsivity and a poorer ability to focus and learn on average.
Whilst it seems unlikely that excessive screen time can directly cause ADHD, there is a correlation, which could explain why ADHD diagnoses in the UK have increased 20-fold from 2000 to 2018. People are spending about 5 hours per day looking at smartphones, compared to zero just a couple of decades ago. Technology is probably more likely to have a negative impact on someone with ADHD because they are at higher risk of addictive behaviour. So whilst one does not cause the other, they often go hand-in-hand.
If you have ADHD or are more prone to its symptoms, then anything that distracts or over-stimulates you is likely to exacerbate symptoms. Smartphones just happen to be a particularly distracting and stimulating device. Those with sufficient dopamine and focus will have a higher tolerance. Where you sit on this spectrum might determine your threshold - how much you can handle before it becomes a problem.
Note: It is possible that frequent smartphone usage could be less harmful to adults compared to children - who may experience more negative consequences due to their increased neural plasticity.
Smartphone addiction is like food addiction: It's hard because you need it to survive.
Everyone has a different drug of choice. Some people get a huge dopamine rush from sugar, but very little from nicotine, or vice-versa. This is before discipline, rationality and morality come into it - before we can consciously determine our personal cost-benefit ratio. Our unique neurochemistry drives our compulsions and determines our preferences - from socialising to exercising to making money, and we have little control over this in the moment.
ADHD is 5 to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in people without the condition. 3-5% of adults have ADHD, but about 25% of adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse have ADHD.
Those with ADHD and/or low dopamine are more sensitive to the molecule itself, and consequently more likely to become addicted to anything that induces dopamine release. Therefore, they should be particularly mindful of their smartphone use, which is itself a dopamine machine. Everything from the colours, animations, sounds and frequency of notifications have been designed to stimulate maximum dopamine production. Algorithms learn and adapt to your unique neurochemistry, which is why your phone - not anyone else's - is your drug of choice. This is the difference between reading a newspaper and reading news on Twitter. How many kids do you know with a newspaper problem?
More isn't always better. Ask an addict who can't derive pleasure from anything other than a peak high. Dopamine is associated with the pursuit of reward. When we drastically and acutely raise dopamine levels in the brain it has a see-saw effect, whereby levels dip below baseline shortly after, which intensifies feelings of craving and depression. Riding this rollercoaster too often ultimately results in burnout - chasing a high that you'll never reach. Combining dopamine-heavy activities can be particularly problematic because it releases unnatural amounts of dopamine rapidly. By deliberately restricting aggregate exposure to hyper-stimulating activities, we can maintain a more stable neurochemical state, and as a result, get more out of less.
Whilst phone usage might not deliver an orgasmic spike of dopamine, we use it 144 times per day (on average). That's a constant drip feed. This is unnatural, and whilst "natural" certainly doesn't always automatically equal "good" frequent reward without effort is, in my opinion, terrible for us.
The smartphone can be a convenient vessel for other addictive behaviours. Shopping, gambling, pornography and fast food used to at least require getting dressed and driving 10 minutes to a store to make a shameful transaction with another judgemental human being. You may have even needed an 18+ ID. That just isn't the case anymore. It's remarkably easy to overconsume addictive and destructive behaviours that release dopamine, which is why addiction rates for activities that have been made more accessible by tech have increased at disproportionate rates in recent years.
Someone might look like they're addicted to their phone when really they're just addicted to something that it provides, and the phone is the most frictionless way to satisfy a craving. I suspect you'd know this to be the case if replacing the phone with a tablet or laptop did not result in any behavioural change.
Smartphone rehab centres in America now offer intensive recovery programs for people as young as 13 who have trouble controlling their use of electronic devices.
One survey found the following:
47% of Americans admit they’re addicted to their phones.
The average American checks their smartphone 352 times per day.
71% of people spend more time on their phone than with their romantic partner.
Almost two-thirds of children spend four hours or more per day on their smartphones.
44% of American adults admit that not having their phones gives them anxiety.
Cell phones cause over 20% of car accidents.
We might read this and laugh, but replace "phone" with "heroin" and we might feel concerned or disgusted, even though it's the outcome that matters.
Addiction is a spectrum, but it’s only deemed worthy of clinical care when it significantly interferes with someone’s life and ability to function. A slight digital attachment isn't a huge problem, but it can be a problem nonetheless. We're all addicted to our devices - just look around. It seems benign, but perhaps it isn't. Either way, we can't all blame it on ADHD.
Addiction is a complex issue, that we'll all experience to some degree. Whilst low dopamine is associated with having an addictive personality, so are trauma and mental health struggles. Humans are complex, and addiction cannot be attributed to one thing.
Have you ever felt mentally exhausted after a day of getting very little work done? Our digital habits could be having a significant impact on our cognitive performance.
Our feeds are optimised for engagement and revenue. Every app is competing for our attention, and they follow us everywhere we go. Therefore, our attention is being yanked in several directions at all times. Research has shown that context shifting is extremely unproductive yet cognitively demanding, causing mental fatigue and feelings of distraction or overwhelm. I suspect this is why so many people report being more productive when working from home. An interruption or small talk with a colleague can immediately break a flow state, which can take 20 minutes to re-establish. With tech, this becomes habitual.
We unequivocally perform best one thing at a time. You wouldn't want your surgeon listening to the radio and taking breaks to check Twitter while they're operating. Technology has made it more difficult to mono-task, especially important and meaningful tasks, which are often long and difficult, but ultimately rewarding. It's been proven that just the mere presence of a phone - on the desk or in your pocket - reduces available cognitive capacity. It's much easier to engage in a quick, easy, dopamine-inducing activity on our smartphones than to sit and work. Forcing yourself to execute one task to the best of your ability requires more discipline today than it did in previous decades.
Studies show that our comprehension and retention are worse when reading information online versus plain text. This is because we skip, scan for summaries and seek stimulation. Suggested videos, open tabs and even hyperlinks reduce our ability to focus and think clearly.
By practising mono-tasking, I believe that we can improve our ability to focus, learn and achieve more fulfilling goals. We can simultaneously improve our mental health and decrease our reliance on technology by scheduling time to read, write, converse or just think without the presence of a device connected to the internet. I have found that spending a little bit of time completely free of external input i.e. anything produced by someone else is extremely valuable because it allows you some time and space to think for yourself, which is key for creativity and problem-solving. Whether this requires relocating to an Amish community, or just a bit of conscious effort and planning is up to you.
Contrary to popular belief, our attention spans have not shrunk. We just gravitate towards short, easy, novel and convenient, and thus become habituated to it.
Remember: The brain builds new or stronger circuits through practice, and these circuits weaken or dissolve through neglect. If you can't focus, it's not because there's a bug in your brain - more likely, it's because you've trained it a particular way, every day, for several years.
Human brains haven't changed much recently; environments have, and this is reflected in increased rates of ADHD. Your great-grandmother may have smoked like a chimney, but she didn't have a TikTok addiction. Drop her into this century and chances are it'd be the opposite, and she'd have a Ritalin prescription from her GP.
The rise in ADHD diagnoses is alarming - particularly in children. The data suggests that technology probably doesn't cause ADHD, but there is a correlation. Does this mean that parents and educators should withhold it from kids? No - because used appropriately, tech, the internet, and even social media can be extremely useful - even critical tools for everyday life. If it's stopping them from attending school or engaging in other activities such as sports, studying, and having dinner with family, then it's an issue which requires intervention.
Be cognisant of addiction. When someone seems completely unable to stop, they're no longer in control. An inability to delay gratification has been linked to poorer health, social and economic outcomes. Having some control over our compulsions is vital to success in all areas of life. Not everyone has an addiction, but they might have a habit that they want to break.
There is data to support that smartphones can decrease productivity, make us feel anxious and depressed, and interfere with our relationships. You know it's a societal problem because you regularly observe people who can't drive to work, finish a movie or stay in a conversation without checking their phone. The consequences are real: in the UK, around 17 people are killed and 500 injured in car accidents every year as a result of mobile phone use.
On the contrary, there's also data to support that smartphones and other tech can increase productivity, improve wellbeing, and help build and strengthen new and existing relationships.
Whether it's a tool or a weapon is a matter of how you use it. Such powerful tools command great responsibility.
Determine if it's a problem for you by asking yourself: How is the time I’m spending on my phone affecting my ability to be a good parent, sibling, spouse, friend, artist, athlete, or employee? Do I feel in control?
You could blame your poor performance on tech companies and/or a neurochemical imbalance in your brain. To do so would absolve you of all responsibility and thus the agency to do anything about it. Perhaps you and the people around you might benefit from making some adjustments.
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