03/10/2016 10:41 BST | Updated 01/10/2017 06:12 BST

Why Can't We Stop Checking Our Phones?

I just listened to the (excellent) Chips With Everything podcast from The Guardian. This week the show focused on why people cannot stop checking their phone for notifications and in particular it was reported that many people are now waking several times a night and checking their phone each time, worried that they might have missed that all-important email or a retweet from Justin Bieber.

Like Pavlov's dog it seems that humans have been conditioned by the phone notification. It has become a reward that we all seek. It has reached the point where we fret and become concerned if the ping of another notification does not arrive quickly enough.

It's easy to dismiss this as nonsense and to suggest that people just put down their phones, but given how far we have now come this is like telling someone with depression to just cheer up. Humans are now slaves to their phones and as we move into an era of wearable and embedded devices this situation can only get worse.

This paper published in Current Biology magazine last February describes the phone problem in more detail. Humans enjoy rewards and the brain is flooded with dopamine when we earn a reward. It naturally makes us feel good and can be experienced in many ways, winning at sport, hearing your favourite song, or receiving a tasty box of chocolates. What has essentially happened in the few short years that we have been using smartphones is a conditioning process - our brains now have a physical reaction to those notifications and it feels good.

I'm as guilty as most when it comes to smart phone distractions. I have updates coming in for my email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, LinkedIn, podcasts, Nike+, and a whole array of less-used apps - such as alerts when the International Space Station is passing overhead. My phone probably notifies me of something every few seconds, but I personally find that three important areas of my life do prevent me from being overwhelmed by the bleeps:

  • My work requires attention; I write for a living. I work on books, journalism, and I write for other people as a ghost. Every day I'm writing something and that demands concentration. I can't even play music with lyrics because the singing distracts me. I could not focus on a short article if I paid attention to the notifications that arrive every few seconds. When I'm working, the phone is ignored.
  • Social etiquette; I was at a pub lunch last Sunday with a group of friends and nobody got their phone out. I was the only one in the group using my phone in front of other people and I was apologising and explaining that it was because I was trying to determine who else was coming to lunch, so I could arrange the right number of seats for them. When I'm with friends and we are eating or drinking together then I give them my full attention and I like to get the same in return. That doesn't mean you can't have a quick look at your phone when a friend goes to the bathroom, but it goes back in the pocket once they return. This might sound a bit old-fashioned, but I hate seeing couples in restaurants where both are just staring into their own Facebook rather than enjoying the moment together.
  • I value my time; I just don't think that I have enough time left. There are so many books I want to read, albums to discover, and movies I want to watch. When I'm on a long bus ride and I realise that I wasted two hours sharing jokes on Twitter rather than making a serious dent in a new book that feels pretty bad. I love social sharing, but when I have a block of time free I also know that I can use it or waste it.

Perhaps it is because these aspects of my life insulate me a little from the pressure of waiting for notifications that I have not faced the sleep problems many people report, although if you are genuinely waking several times a night because of anxiety over notifications on your phone then that sounds remarkably like addiction.

Social networks and apps are a fantastic resource. I really missed my phone when I broke it about a year ago. Although what I really missed was the audio-books, podcasts, and ability to share photos - not calls.

Not everyone has a job that helps to insulate them from the constant updates. If you dislike your job then the notifications might be a welcome relief. But everyone needs to escape this tyranny at some point or we will all end up as slaves to a device that makes our brain happy every time it glows.