Addiction to Smartphones Might Have an Upside After All

March 18th 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

Teens are reportedly using less drugs than ever. From cocaine to heroin, usage in the age group are at its lowest ever while marijuana use remains stable.

Similarly, smoking and drinking rates for teens have reached a new low.

So what’s going on?

The New York Times theorizes that the reason why rates for drug usage are down is because teens are using smartphones. They might be addicted to technology instead of drugs.

Experts like Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, believe something is happening here considering the data shows drug usage being down in all demographics. “Teens can get literally high when playing these games,” Dr. Volkow told the Times.

While this theory feels true, are teens actually getting high with their phones?

Dr. Silvia Martins, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who is studying the subject, believes the theory is plausible but the matter hasn’t been widely tested.

The reason why phones could be replacing drugs is that they fulfill a need for novelty that drugs provide. “You get rewards,” Martins told ATTN:. “The way that drugs act and the way that these video games might act, they’re fulfilling the pleasurable areas of the brain.”

Dr. James Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of "Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone?," concurs. “We know that anything that produces pleasure can be addictive,” Roberts told ATTN:. “Our smartphones are very good at it... They’re designed very carefully to be just like a slot machine.”

Both doctors agreed that this is good news, but they're wary that smartphone usage might be a false positive.

“It would be more or less a harm reduction strategy,” Martins said. “When people are addicted and when people have problems with drugs, it’s might be better for them to be addicted to video games or choose something else than to be using drugs.”

But what are the dangers of smartphone addiction?

The answer is complicated - while it might not be directly positive or negative, there are certainly effects.

Roberts also worries that phone addiction will harm relationships. “When taken to the extreme, I think there’s some really serious implications,” he said. “It’s not being passed out on the floor from an overdose but it has some kind of more pernicious, kind of more subtle impact on our lives that are just as serious as drug and alcohol abuse.”

Plus, there's another issue, no one truly knows the impact prolonged usage of smartphones can have on people. “We don’t know what are the long term consequences of all these teenagers spending so much of their leisure time just playing video games or participating in social media,” Martins explained.

Reducing drug usage and detrimental addicting activities is a good thing but trading an addiction for an addiction is not the wisest decision. Both Roberts and Martins agree — and are concerned with overusing smartphones, in general.

“It’s become now a need rather than a want,” Roberts said. “We need our smartphones and they’re interfering with our relationships, our performance at work, with our driving, our physical safety: we’ve crossed that tipping point from good to bad use of smartphones.”