Your phone helps you find your way around, stay connected to your work and your friends, capture the moment, book flights, and so much more. But all that usefulness has a darkside, too. Namely smartphone addiction. How can you tell if you’re phone usage is problematic, and what can you do to have a better relationship with your smartphone?
Today on the “How to Be a Better Person” podcast I’m interviewing Dr. Jud Brewer, a New York Times best-selling author, neuroscientist, addiction, psychiatrist, and thought leader in the field of habit change. He is the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s mindfulness center, where he also serves as an associate professor.
Dr. Jud is the executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare Inc. And a research affiliate at MIT. He’s the author of The Craving Mind: from Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love. And his newest book, Unwinding Anxiety. Dr. Jud’s Ted Talk on breaking bad habits has over 17 million views. And I’m so excited to get his insights on addiction and forging a better relationship with our smartphones.
Listen to the Podcast Here
Dr. Jud, welcome. It’s really great to have you here. So you work with folks to help break all kinds of habits and you often frame it in terms of addicted behavior. Can you explain what you mean by addiction?
Yes. The simple definition that I learned in residency training for addiction was ‘continued use despite adverse consequences.’ So here it highlights that it’s not just chemical substances that we often think about as the classical addictions, but really any behavior can become addictive.
So how are smartphones designed to make us compulsive users? What aspects of our brains are they seeking to exploit?
Yes, let me count the ways. So there are a number of things that smartphones provide. And I think that helps just to understand how our brains form habits and an addiction. So its actually a relatively simple processes. Three elements are critical, a trigger, a behavior and or reward. And this comes from our survival brains trying to help us remember where food is and how to avoid dangerous.
So for example, if we see some food, think of our ancient ancestors first. You know, they saw food and that was the trigger. They ate the food, that would be the behavior. And then their stomach would send this dopamine signal to their brain that said, remember what you ate and where you found it. So that’s, that’s the basic process for setting up any habit.
So this can exploited. It’s not just about food, but anything can basically trigger the habit of picking up our phones. So for example, if somebody feels stressed, that can feel unpleasant, and then maybe they go on their phone to look at some cute pictures of puppies or whatever on Instagram. And that’s the behavior that says, Hey, that feels better than being stressed, why don’t you do that again? So they set up this procrastination habit.
We can have shopping habits. All of this is continued use despite adverse consequences. Even texting can become that way because if we hear our phone chirp that says, Hey, you just got a text. Our brain says, Hey, what was that? I need to figure out what that is. So that that brings in elements of uncertainty. And our brains don’t like uncertainty, so they’re going to do whatever they can to minimize uncertainty. And if our phone makes a noise and we don’t know who texted us, our brain’s going to come in and try to figure that out.
Then the other thing I’ll add there in terms of these phones, is that what’s been shown in research, is that the most reinforcing type of behavioral schedule, like when you give somebody a reward is called intermittent reinforcement. Which basically means random rewards. People don’t know when they’re going to get them. So there’s element of surprise really gets at these core mechanisms of our brain. So, you know, you don’t know when you’re going to get that next text, or if you’ve got all your alerts set up on your phone for email and other types of things. Any of those things can signal to our brain, Hey, you’re going to get something, go check it out.
I think Cornell West put it, these ‘weapons of mass distraction’ are really designed in every conceivable way to be habit-forming. Whether it’s convenience or the ability to distract ourselves, or just to have something to do when we’re bored, they’re just really addictive.
I loved how you defined addiction as using something despite negative consequences. So for smartphones, I find that looking at the negative aspect of things can be very motivating for perhaps to try and change some of those habits. So what are some of the negative consequences that maybe we’re not recognizing?
One of them is just the amount of time that we spend on them. I teach a class each fall at Brown on these types of habits and have the students pick a habit that they’re working with. A number of my students this semester are focusing on social media use or phone use and tracking that. Somebody just tracked the number of hours, it was almost 20 hours a week that they were spending on, I think just on social media.
So it was like, that’s a part-time job. That’s half time job. Whereas, you know, they could be spending time with their friends. They could be spending time doing many other things besides just checking their social media. So there’s one example where we’re just, you know, it’s eating up all of our time and that’s an adverse consequence when we’re trying to live our lives.
So how can we use these insights about how our brains are being hijacked by these weapons of mass distraction and the negative consequences that they cause, and start to break that reward seeking loop?
My lab has been studying this for a couple of decades now. And I highlighted this three-step process in the Unwinding Anxiety book, which can be applied to any habit. I just highlight anxiety, because it is very prevalent right now. But the first step is really just mapping out whatever the habit loop is. You know, what’s the trigger, what’s the behavior, what’s the results. So that’s pretty straightforward.
The second step is really tapping into our brain’s reward system. Knowing that the only way to change a habit is to really bring awareness to the consequences of the habit or the results of the habit of the behavior. So I have people ask a simple question: What am I getting from this? So for example, we have this app called Eat right now that we just published a study on showing that having people pay attention as they go through. This is a mindfulness training for stress, emotional and overeating.
But what we do is we have people pay attention as they overeat. And what we found was that it only takes 10 to 15 times if somebody’s paying careful attention as they overeat for that reward value to shift completely to negative. So they start to shift their behavior. So that really highlights how our brains work is. If you pay attention and it’s not rewarding, you’re going to stop doing it. So that’s the really the second step in terms of unhelpful, let’s say phone habits. So we can really pay attention to how much time is this costing me when I’m constantly on social media.
As we become disenchanted, we can then shift into that third step, which I call, finding the bigger, better offer. So if our brain is going to do behaviors that are rewarding, we can give our brains rewarding behaviors to do. And it’s not just some other, like, okay, look at cute pictures of kittens instead of puppies. It’s just substituting one for another. But it’s really tapping into intrinsically rewarding, mental behaviors, such as curiosity and kindness.
So for example, for anxious, we can get curious about what that anxiety feels like as compared to getting stuck in a worry habit loop. Or if we’re judging ourselves, we can bring kindness in those moments rather than indulging in, I dunno, eating or something like that. And here, that kindness and curiosity, they just feel better than things like worrying and judging ourselves.
Nice. Okay. So Dr. Jud, you developed several apps to help people change their behavior around what you call an every day addiction. So clearly smartphones, aren’t all bad. How can we begin to discern when our smartphone use is healthy and helpful, and when it’s veering into addictive distraction territory?
Yes, I’m glad you highlight that. Because this is not to vilify smartphones. You know, for me, I’d never be able to drive around Boston without my phone cause I get lost really quickly. So here it’s really looking at the results or the consequences. And so for example, going on social media. Many of us go on social media for a number of reasons. And they’re all fine. It’s just when it becomes adverse consequences.
I’m thinking of an example. I was working with a resident physician in our addiction clinic. And she was actually using one of our mindfulness apps. I think it was the craving to quit app–we also have one for smoking one for overeating. But she was just using those as a way to start to kind of learn these habit loops. And what she told me was that one day she kind of woke up from where she was on autopilot because she was just constantly checking her newsfeed.
And she noticed that it was dinnertime. Her two small kids were sitting eating at the dinner table and she was standing away from the dinner table, checking her news feed. And she had this realization, this awakening where she was thinking, Oh my gosh, how did it come to this? I’m not even sitting down having dinner with my kids. And she hadn’t realized it. So there’s a great example of really just bringing that awareness in.
So what’s something folks who are listening to this podcast right now can do, as soon as it ends, to support them in their efforts to break their smartphone addiction? Or even begin to understand their relationship to their smartphone in a different way?
I think the first step is really knowing how our minds work. If we don’t know how our minds work, we can’t work with them. So this starts with the mapping. That’s where I start with all of my patients. That’s where I start with all my friends, with anybody that says, how do I start? Just map your mind, like start to become aware of these habit loops. And it really doesn’t take very long to start to identify the triggers, the behaviors, the results. But as we do that, we really start to illuminate that internal space. And we see how we’re driven in ways that we haven’t noticed before.
Is there anything else you wish folks knew and understood about their relationship to their devices?
Well, we’ve covered a lot. And I would say, it’s really about seeing these things as neutral arbiters. It’s kind of like a knife. A knife can be helpful for cooking and we can also cut ourselves with it if we’re not careful. So here it’s really about awareness. It’s really about curiosity and it’s really about knowing ourselves. And we even just put out a new app called Unwinding by Sharecare. Our aim there is just to help people understand all the different ways that we get caught up in these different habit patterns.
So we’ve put out these mini courses on like procrastination, on anger, on kindness. Just brain 101 types of things. And so my aim there is to help people really know themselves so that they can live happier, healthier lives.
Awesome. Well, thank you for that work. I love so much of what you’re talking about and how awareness is the first step. I think that’s such a doable goal for people. And I think people think, Oh my gosh, I have to change my whole behavior. I’m going to change my life. And sometimes you just need to start paying attention.
Yes, awareness is good at the beginning. It’s good in the middle, and it’s good at the end.
For listeners who’d like to hear more, where can they find you and where can they find these apps that you’re working on? They sound great.
I have a website called drjud.com that lists all these apps as well as a bunch of free resources in case folks want to learn more about their minds.
Daily Tiny Assignment
I love how Dr. Jud broke down this whole idea of assessing how addicted you are into three simple steps. Which is, writing down the trigger, what makes you reach for your smartphone? Then the behavior, what do you do when you’re on your smartphone? And then the result? So what happens after you reach for your smartphone?
So that what your tiny assignment is. The next time you’re tempted to pick up your smartphone, just ask yourself, what is my trigger? What made me want to do this? Was it a notification? Was it a curiosity to see if somebody had written you back yet? What could it be? I noticed that I often look for my phone when I need to work on something that’s going to require some brainpower and I would rather do something frivolous and fun and get some dopamine. Now I know that that’s what’s going on there.
So, write down your trigger, write down what you do once you pick up the phone and then be honest about the result. In my case, if I pick up my phone when I really want to be thinking about something or really need to be thinking about something, the result is that it takes me a while to remember what I was doing. It takes me a while to get back in the groove. And then I start to get a little bit churned up like, oh, I just wasted time. So what are your three things? And remember to look at them with curiosity and with kindness. And then be sure to come back tomorrow when we are going to take a gentle, curious, and kind to look at the question, are you meaner online than you are in real life?