Hooked on Your Smartphone? Why … and How to Fix It

Two boys on smartphones

Has YOUR phone swallowed your life?

Do you have a hard time leaving it alone?

Do you ever wonder why it is sooo hard to break loose from your phone?

You are not alone.

Hooked by Your Smartphone

If you have owned an internet connected smartphone for more than five minutes, I bet you have opened an app, browser or social media site and been pulled into your phone. And stayed there. No idea of time passing.

(Cue creepy music… ) You have fallen into a mental state disconnected from here and now, where life passes without your notice.

I call it “The Phone Zone”. Have you ever been there? Lost much time? … Me too.

Many people have the uneasy feeling their phone habit could be a problem. Maybe even addiction.

How about YOU? …I’m recovering, thank you.

BTW, It is NOT your fault

Your smartphone and apps were deliberately engineered to be addictive.

Smartphones, Dopamine, the Surveillance Economy and YOU

About Dopamine:

The reason your phone is habit forming is dopamine, a chemical messenger in your brain that delivers feelings of pleasure… Really good feelings.

A powerful motivator, dopamine moves people to repeat the behavior that triggered it, again and again. … The trigger and response cycle happens without thought.

Dopamine, in the brain’s reward center, is the mechanism responsible for addictions.

And for a twist to keep things even more interesting… you get a bigger dopamine payoff for the anticipation of a reward than for the reward itself.

The dopamine hit you get on your device is the reason why you keep checking your email.

When you can spot a dopamine hit and the trigger, you have a weapon to fight compulsive smartphone use.

Dopamine and Predatory Corporate Practices

Social media, apps, and hardware manufacturers have spent millions to exploit the dopamine feedback loop in the brain. They built “brain hacks” into smartphone and app design to exploit the brain’s reward system.

They use dopamine to keep your eyes on the screen for as long as possible as often as possible. The smartphone is the primary tool of the surveillance economy in which your attention and preferences are bought and sold. Some call it The Attention Economy… you pick what you want to call it.

The hooks built into your smartphone are bad news for you and your family.

How the Surveillance Economy Works

Platforms like Social Media and Google gather surveillance and aggregate data from every move you make. What you read, post, search and share. They even note how long something keeps your attention.

Then they sell your profile to advertisers and marketers along with targeted access to your feed.

Do you ever feel like someone is eavesdropping on you because you get ads for something you researched?

Marketers will present you with a product suggestion that you will have a hard time resisting. Artificially Intelligent bots KNOW you want it, because you were just looking at something similar.

It is called narrowcast marketing.

Soo …The devices keep your eyes on the screen as long as they can so that platforms can sell your attention to advertisers, and so that you are more likely to buy from those narrowcast targeted ads.

Why Your Phone is Addictive

Specialist software developers, sometimes known as “Growth Hackers”, use sophisticated neuroscience (also used to program slot machines, video games, and video lottery terminals), to maximize the addictive qualities of your user experience.

Each sound, flash or message you get on your smartphone triggers dopamine in the pleasure center of your brain. It’s not as intense as crack, but it IS the same neurotransmitter, and the same biological mechanism.

It is changing how people behave.

Why the Hooks Work

Apps are designed to deliver the rewards at random times and at variable intensities. The brain cannot predict the reward and that builds anticipation which triggers dopamine too. The strategy is a version of operant conditioning using a variable intermittent reinforcement (reward) schedule. It is very powerful. Very manipulative.

It is a form of mind control.

When playing slots, the target behavior = coins in the slot, + pull the lever. With digital devices the target behavior = eyes on the screen for as long as possible, + as often as possible.

When the Hooks Happen

Think of your favorite puzzle game when the screen collapses in explosions, flashes and sounds that makes you breathe… “Whoa… that was cool!” Just like the slots, right?
Well… Yes. It absolutely IS like the slots and your brain likes it. So you do it again. And again, usually without conscious thought.

Every bell, whistle, surprise, social connection, email and feedback gives you a shot of dopamine. It feels good.

You go to your phone when you feel bored, upset or just want to check… You even turn to your phone automatically without thought, because dopamine feels soo good.

And so you enter “The Phone Zone” where you act on autopilot. It’s a lot like the casino where there are no clocks or windows to give you time cues or other boundaries.

It is Hard to UnHook

Variable intermittent rewards (with dopamine as the payoff), are the fastest, most powerful, most reliable way to build an addictive habit. The variable intermittent ratio reinforcement schedule creates the hardest habit to break too.

Operant conditioning makes it so and behavioral scientists know it. There are a lot of them working in Silicon Valley. They call it persuasive design.

I Know because I Used to Do Behavior Modification

In my youth I trained in “behavior modification” or applied operant conditioning. I created behavior programs to help disabled kids control extreme behavior problems.

I know firsthand the incredible power of conditioning… and I can see just how it’s manipulative methods are built into your smartphone experience.

Manipulative, Shiny Interesting Things.

I am trying to notice when I feel a dopamine hit on a digital device. To gain more awareness.

I play a puzzle game with exploding gems and screens that collapse. I can make one move that seems to trigger cascades of events that sends the point counter spinning. Millions of points… I don’t even need to touch my machine.

It’s a total rush when that happens. When it stops, the game will offer me an opportunity to buy credits to ”continue my streak”.


Or the game can present no path to rack up points before the “Times Up” and then the screen that shows after will have several high scoring playable moves I can’t play. Accident? … NO.

Click Bait. Automatic next game if I wasn’t paying attention. Have you been caught by a hook? Jumped at Click Bait? It is not your fault, but now you know. Can you say Phone Zone?

The Fix?

Finding balance and fixing this starts with awareness.

When you pay attention to what is happening, you can decide if you want something different.

Then you can practice active resistance of your phone’s entertainment functions.

Turn off notifications when and wherever you can. My 4 Steps to UnHook from Your Phone can help you figure out a fix that works for you.


When are you aware of being played on your phone?

What concerns do you have about your phone habit?

How is digital entertainment impacting the lives of you and your family members?

Please share your experience in the comments below or visit our Facebook group.

About the Author

Peggy McLauchlan is a counsellor, ACT therapist, and personal development coach in Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in positive psychology practices applied to problems with modern digital technology, like smartphone addiction and problematic internet use.