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Writers Talk About Writing

Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone? Is the Pandemic Making It worse?

Before I went to bed last night, I spent five minutes on my French lesson. I'm using Duolingo  which I hope to augment with a (socially-distanced) tutor very soon.

According to DL, I’m currently 61% fluent in French, which I think is a bit of a joke. (That's either une blagueor une plaisanterie; I'll tell you more after my tutoring.) But at least the software is keeping my nose to the grindstone. I haven't missed a day in more than 11 weeks. Formidable!

Anyway, following my French work, I wandered over to the New York Times and caught myself up on the horrific pandemic news.  Before I knew what had happened, it was 11:15 pm and I was late for sleep.

I don't typically let my smartphone lead me by the nose, as I did last night, but many others do. Did you know that at least 81 percent of American adults (18+) now own a smartphone and they spend an average of two hours and 51 minutes  on it every day?(Too early to tell whether the pandemic will have driven that number up or down.) And, Americans across all age groups check their phones 46 times per day, according to Deloitte

Perhaps this type of obsession is not surprising since many people use smartphones as their alarm clocks and then eagerly check them for texts, email and news upon waking up. And many anonymous surveys show the majority of people regularly use their smartphone while on the toilet. (Depending on which survey you check, stats range from 38 to 75 percent.) 

But the statistics become alarming when you consider smartphone use while driving

  • The US National Safety Council reports that phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.
  • Nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.
  • One out of every four car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.
  • Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.

While many people value the chance to keep track of friends and family (especially teenage children) it's also apparent that "urgent" communications are not what's driving the trend toward extreme smartphone use. For example, look at time we spend on social media alone. The majority of it (40 minutes) goes to YouTube (crazy cat videos, anyone?), closely followed by Facebook (35 minutes), followed by Snapchat (25 minutes). Instagram (15 minutes) and Twitter (1 minute) bring up the rear.

But here's the sobering part of the statistic: Over their lifetime, most people will spend five years and four months on social media. (In comparison, we spend only three years and five months eating.)

So, what else could you do in five years and four months? Well, you could walk your dog 93,000 times, climb Mt. Everest 32 times or write five 80,000 word books. (You knew I was going to relate this to writing, right?) The heart of the problem is that checking our smartphone feels good. (Walking your dog for that long, climbing Mt. Everest that many times or writing a book, not so much.)

The culprit is a neurotransmitter in our brains called dopamine. Dopamine motivates us to seek pleasurable rewards — like eating premium chocolate or double cream brie or, even, looking for more "likes" on Facebook or new emails/texts from friends. How does Facebook compete with chocolate, you ask?

All of us are hardwired to enjoy the "hunt" for new information. We're built this way. We also value being recognized by others (the FB "like") and we enjoy feeling part of a larger social group. Pursuing these activities releases dopamine, which makes us feel good, so we want to do it more often.

As well, the stress of the pandemic causes us to become ever-more aggressive about seeking dopamine hits. We're desperate for anything that will make us feel a little bit better.

If your smartphone use concerns you or if you'd like to get more writing done now — or when the pandemic is over — I suggest you check to see if you might be an addict. Take this quiz and consider your score. (I was relieved to find I ranked in the bottom 30 percent of all scores.)

And if you're serious about producing a book or a blog (or a thesis or dissertation), think about repurposing some of your smartphone time to writing. And consider getting a dopamine squirt by using my no-charge secret sauce: a tracking record for your writing. Honestly, it will make you feel far more accomplished than spending 40 minutes on YouTube.

Did you know that Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey does not start his day by looking at his smartphone? Instead, he starts at 5 am by meditating for 30 minutes and then follows that with his daily workout.

Even the people who are intent on addicting you to your smartphone don't let it happen to them.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.