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Information and insights to help you keep your family safe

  • Barry Kick

Smartphones, dopamine and your kids: the hidden arms race... many times have you picked up your phone today? The average person in the UK checks their phone every 12 minutes and spends over 3 hours per day interacting with it*. That's just the adults, the kids don't stand a chance...

I realise you are probably reading this on your phone right now - oh the irony!

If you have ever lost a phone you will understand the terrifying arm-has-been-cut-off feeling those gorgeous little rectangles cause when they decide to part company with you. If you have ever had to take your child's phone away as punishment you will also know the local apocalypse this can bring!

Many of us wish we, and our children, spent less time on phones. Why are we all so drawn to those magical little screens and so distraught when they go missing?

All the apps are working as hard as possible to drive user engagement. It's their lifeblood - many of the most popular apps are free and rely on advertising. You and your children's engagement - eyeballs if you will - are being sold; you aren't really an app company's customer if you don't pay them anything. And they are doing a good job: Facebook's average revenue per user increased from $20 in 2017 to $32 in 2020 and it's not even the kids that are driving that one - Facebook usage in children has been falling for years. There are plenty of other free social apps owning children's time and making billions.

This war being waged by app companies for our attention is deeply connected to an important and very old part of the brains reward system which lies at the root of why we are so attached to our phones. Dopamine is a brain chemical that plays a leading role in motivating behaviour - it's release is caused by everything from sex to chocolate but also by successful social interactions.

As a social species our ancestors were in deep trouble should they be cast out and we have evolved complex reward systems that make us feel good when our tribe gives us a 'like'. I wonder how many people we would each have typically been connected with during the course of that evolution? The research suggests we can cope with up to 150 people well. The phone in your pocket connects you with many millions.

So we are all carrying these immense social environments around in our pockets and the Dopamine released when we have a positive interaction reinforces whatever behaviour preceded it. The short-term reward feedback loops created by apps on your phone are essentially the same brain pathways as those ignited in behaviours such as gambling and drug addiction.

It is a growing problem and while there is lots of research being done to understand the impact there are some clever strategies you can use to get control over device usage if you wish to reduce it. Here are a few of them:

Firstly, think about how much you would ideally like you and your children to use your phones. You can check how long you actually do in the settings! Set a clear goal and plan rewards with the kids if they succeed.

  1. Turn off notifications. Take the cue away and it will help you change the habit. This is hard for children as they don't want to feel left out of friends' conversations. Setting screen times to limit use can help here - you can also limit how long each app is used for per day.

  2. You will have more time - plan what could you do with it.

  3. Create a morning routine and don't interact with your phone straight away. Make sure the kids can't access theirs before breakfast at least - either by physically removing from their possession or through screen time settings.

  4. Don't charge the phone near your bed.

  5. Have a day a week off. Simples!

Good luck. Let us know what you think in the comments and please like and share this article if you found it useful!


*Ofcom 2019 data.


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