Digital Dopamine Concerns

Is It Time to Warn Users?

Dopamine_lThis artificial phone is for real. A Kickstarter campaign for a solid rectangular block of black plastic has been a success. The makers of the NoPhone Zero call it a device with absolutely no features at all, but the otherwise useless chunk of nothing has a comforting surrogate value for those going through digital rehab. The Zero handset is also useful as a metaphorical exclamation point for real and trending concerns about device addiction.

The worry isn’t new. More than a decade ago, the so-called CrackBerry addiction was described as a growing pandemic among dedicated white-collar workers. The need for a constant flow of information was becoming a serious point of clinical concern but was, for the most part, isolated to a small segment of society. However, the contagion wouldn’t be limited. Smartphones have since gone global, and with them so have non-stop information pings of all sorts.

What might the concerns be for an industry accused of being too successful?

The alarm bells are getting louder, with growing calls for action in a number of countries against companies which have redefined the term “to have and to hold”. Smartphones — and perhaps social networks, bubble games and shopping apps —should require labels that warn of the dangers of device addiction. Proponents of regulation say that screen dependency could lead to personality changes and social withdrawal.

The demand for warning labels on smartphones sounds somewhat facetious, and it would be easy to point to historical technology parallels: too much electricity, too much radio, too much television, too much talking on the phone.


This isn’t about teenage rebellion. This is a multigenerational phenomenon, and legitimate studies calling for addiction labels are getting noticed. A paper by researchers from the Faculty of Science and Technology at Bournemouth University in the UK point to a “correlation between digital addiction and certain negative consequences such as depression, reduced creativity and productivity, lack of sleep and disconnection from reality”.

The suggestion that smartphone and tablet usage come with cautionary notices similar to warning stickers found on tobacco and alcohol isn’t unheard of. Some computer products have ergonomic recommendations and health warnings, and some PC accessories state that the “use of a keyboard or mouse may be linked to serious injuries or disorders”.

Like labels on mattresses or most multipage end-user agreements, it’s difficult to know for sure if addiction warnings on mobile products would have much of an effect on end-user behaviour. Device addiction is becoming a proper noun, with the term being recognized as a real clinical disorder. Mobile apps might cause real physiological changes. Recommendations for responsible usage could be more than a public service announcement: in more litigious countries, there could be cause for concern for legal repercussions somewhere down the road.

Those calling for an era of digital detox are swimming against a river of more devices and services. Screens are getting cheaper and wearable computers might someday cover us from head to toe. If concerns about social alienation are great now, we can only imagine how things will be if augmented reality glasses become as ubiquitous as smartphones are today.

The modern digital family is certainly different, but whether digital intoxication is a real cause for concern or simply a widespread controversy is still up for debate. But be aware that the discussion is making headlines.

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