16 Sep 20
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man making a call on a mobile phone

Many of us over-use our phones – the average Australian checks their phone 85 times a day! But what we might not realise is the link between excessive smartphone use and gambling.  

Dopamine activation

The designers of both smartphones and poker machines increase our desire to engage with them by activating dopamine.  

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is released when we experience novelty, pleasure and successful social interaction.  A dopamine influx can be triggered by new notifications, such as on social media or messaging services like WhatsApp. Even impulsively doing a Google search to look into something that has just occurred to us can create a dopamine influx.  

Getting a “win” on a poker machine activates dopamine in the same way.

The variable reward schedule

Dopamine is also activated when we anticipate new rewards, which we experience as a sense of excitement or heightened arousal. Checking our phone to see if we have a new notification can cause us to experience this feeling.

Similarly, so can pushing a button on a poker machine in anticipation of winning,  or awaiting the results of a multi-bet.

The longer we keep gambling, the longer we stay in that heightened state of excitement as we anticipate more rewards, which is why many of us continue playing long after we’re in the red.

The variable schedule

What causes the spikes in dopamine is knowing that we might get the reward, without being certain when it could happen. If we always knew there would be new notifications on our phones, or that we’d always win when we’re gambling, it wouldn’t be exciting.

This unpredictable pattern of rewards is known as a variable schedule.

Chasing rewards to avoid bad internal experiences

Sometimes we’ll chase those spikes in dopamine because we want to avoid unpleasant experiences such as anxiety or anger, loneliness or stress and low mood. Usually, we aren’t even being aware that is why we are doing it.

We can have a “holiday” from those feelings by anticipating new notifications on social media or messaging apps, or by immersing ourselves in message conversations, new articles and online searches.

Many of us also seek to create a “holiday” from bad feelings by turning to gambling to seek rewards and keep ourselves excited.

Eventually, the bad feelings that arise from losing money from gambling leads us back to gambling again to escape those feelings.

Ways to reduce smartphone use

Given the similarities between compulsive smartphone use and compulsive gambling, it might be useful to approach controlling our phone usage as a “dress rehearsal” for controlling our gambling behaviour.

Some strategies for managing excessive phone usage are:

Download a tracking app

Tracking apps that gather data about how many times you unlock your phone and how long you spend using each day. Once you have data on how you’re using your phone, you can set targets to reduce it.

Delete social media apps

Habits are perpetuated when we experience a cue, such as the sight of an app icon, and respond automatically, by opening it. Removing the cue reduces the number of times you check social media. Of course, you can still check in your web browser, but that extra step might make all the difference.

Turn off notifications

Go to the notification settings in your phone and turn off notifications for everything that’s not necessary. You will still receive urgent phone calls from loved ones without being enticed by all the other notifications your phone sends you.

Change your phone colour scheme to greyscale

You can make your phone black and white by going to Settings>Accessibility. A bland home screen will make your phone a lot less enticing to open.

Change where you charge it

Charge your phone far away from your bed, or even better, in a different room to the one you sleep in. Too many of us look at our phones as soon as we wake up and before we go to bed. We can make this harder to do by putting it out of arm’s reach.

What you can do next

Find out more about strategies for reducing your gambling:

If you want to talk to someone about reducing your smartphone use, you can chat live online with a professional counsellor, anywhere, anytime.

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