What smartphone addiction looks like when you’re living with ADHD

It’s all in your head.
It’s all in your head.
Image: Pabak Sarkar/Flickr via CC BY 2.0
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“You and that phone,” my friend said. Her frustration was palpable, and I didn’t blame her. We were supposed to be getting coffee, but all I could do was obsessively check my phone. I tried to explain why checking my social media notifications—even somewhat obsessively—actually helps soothe my racing mind. Granted, I work in social media, but deep down I’ve known for a while now that the level to which I am tethered to my mobile device is by no means “normal.”

Having ADHD is difficult. I have trouble focusing for long periods of time. And although it may sound counterintuitive, in some ways my life has improved with the advent of the smartphone. The truth is that I worried a great deal more in the pre-iPhone decades. My inability to keep track of everything and anything kept my brain speeding through endless possibilities, both good and bad. I was stuck in an anxiety feedback loop.

But according to psychologist Susan Weinschenk PhD, my connection to my phone isn’t just about information. Checking your smartphone can actually increase the dopamine levels in your brain. The act of receiving likes and comments on Facebook posts can activate the pleasure center of my brain, and perhaps more importantly, keep me coming back for more.

The same sort of reaction has been observed with online dating app Tinder. “If the frontal cortex decides having a Tinder response is pleasurable, it’s going to give you a shot of dopamine,” Ellen Carpenter, professor of neuroscience at UCLA, told Fusion last February. “You then associate that pleasurable feeling with a ping on your phone.”

The fact that social media can have pleasurable impact is interesting to me because some research has suggested that ADHD is linked to low dopamine levels. While this connection is still being investigated—and, in at least one case, questioned—I’ve wondered whether I check my phone so often out of a desire to regulate my dopamine.

However, it seems that apps like Facebook and Twitter may offer people with ADHD more than just validation. “Someone who has ADHD has a baseline decreased ability to sustain attention, and often times is easily bored,” Dr. Jennifer Yen, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating people with ADHD, tells Quartz. “With traditional learning and knowledge, the information is provided in a low stimulating environment. As social media and the internet are filled with constantly changing information, it is able to maintain its novelty and keep the person engaged.”

Whether social media is functioning as an emotional boost or as an opportunity for mental stimulation, it’s no wonder that I have such a craving for it.

But my tight-knit relationship with my smartphone may have a dark side, according to Dr. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist who lives with ADHD. He tells Quartz that people with ADHD are at risk of becoming addicted to the good feelings they get when they achieve positive interactions.

“A lot of people with ADD have what’s called ‘reward deficiency syndrome,” Hallowell explains to Quartz. “Our pleasure meter is simply set lower than the average person. So we have to resort to extraordinary means to experience ordinary pleasure and that’s common in the world of ADD. The trick with ADD is to get that dopamine squirt in adaptive ways rather than maladaptive ways.”

This isn’t solely a problem for people with ADHD, of course. Social media trains people to have a lot of interaction with a screen, something that Hallowell calls a “soul-sucking” habit with well-documented downsides. “It is costing tens of millions of people productivity, true closeness, and time.”

And then there are practical considerations. No one wants to annoy their families and friends by checking Instagram throughout conversations.

According to psychologist Jessica Zucker, the first step to dealing with a social-media fixation is figuring out what, exactly, we are attempting to gain.

“Do I feel valid in my opinion regardless of what people think? It’s a chance to examine one’s identity,” Zucker tells Quartz. She suggests three crucial questions to ask ourselves before we start checking our phones:

  1. What am I feeling?
  2. What might I be wanting a distraction from?
  3. What am I hoping to feel as a result from connecting with my phone?

Once we’ve answered these questions, we may have a better chance of putting down the phone.

At the end of the day, while there may not be anything medically wrong with my using Facebook for emotional gain, I’ve realized that I’ve been using it as a crutch to beat back worried thoughts. But finding out that I just got another ”like” on my status update won’t solve the problem of where those thoughts came from in the first place. Or make them go away.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me what we had done before the proliferation of smartphones. It was difficult for me remember what I did to combat my high anxiety levels before I had access to social media in the palm of my hand. But I think it may be time to take a step back from Apple and Samsung and find myself a new dopamine dealer.