Opinion guest column

Smartphones and Cigarettes Go Hand in Hand

The two behaviors seem different on the surface, yet are similar psychologically

The idea of smartphones being the cigarettes of this generation wasn’t a foreign concept to me. A few years ago, I read a passage in Cal Newport’s (PhD ’09) Digital Minimalism comparing the goals of big tech companies to those of big tobacco companies. Despite seeing parallels between the two industries, I found the claim to be a bit of a stretch, even as someone very interested in the principles of digital minimalism. I was well aware of technology’s negative effects on society, but  using a smartphone appeared much more innocuous than smoking. I realize now that I let the allure of my phone’s colorful and bright display deceive me. 

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I started noticing similarities between my smartphone behavior and smoking, at which point I no longer considered Newport’s comparison to be an exaggeration. This summer, I found myself bored in the lab quite often. Even though I had experiments and other lab procedures to complete, there was a lot of unscheduled time. As a result, I decided to check my phone once every hour or two at work. I prevented myself from breaking this rule by shutting down my phone after I checked each time so I would feel less inclined to pick up the phone. Each time I checked my phone, I made sure not to spend too much time because I was supposed to be focused on lab work and research.  

What I described above regarding my phone usage doesn’t sound too concerning. A few weeks into being in the lab, however, I started thinking about how my phone breaks were like the smoke breaks people took every hour. The thought of equating the two felt so perverted and disgusting to me. Yet gradually, the thought made more and more sense. The two behaviors seemed different on the surface, yet were similar psychologically. According to the American Cancer Society, what makes smoking enjoyable is that nicotine affects brain chemistry by releasing a rush of dopamine as well as adrenaline. These effects last for a few minutes, and the temporary nature of this effect causes people to crave it again. My frequent urget to check my phone was a way of taking a break, it made me relax, and the behavior was rewarding because it distracted me from the unpleasant feelings of boredom, just as smokers enjoy having smoke breaks.

Why couldn’t I just resist the urge and only check my phone when I needed to instead of when I wanted to during the workday? 

I thought that the growing awareness I had of phone breaks feeling like smoke breaks would force me to end this habit as soon as possible, but it wasn’t until a month ago that I finally took action to stop my smartphone habit from becoming more addictive and obsessive. I was annoyed that I had developed a habit of checking my phone much more than I wanted, especially email and messaging apps such as iMessage and Messenger. To add insult to the injury, my recent average screen time was around 30-50% higher than my average in the prior school year. 

Logically speaking, I knew that there wasn’t much point in checking my phone multiple times for a single new email or text when I could wait a few hours later. Despite this, I felt like my mind was under the control of my smartphone, a technology constantly hijacking my brain’s chemical machinery to make it release dopamine whenever I got a new message or email, just like smokers have higher levels of dopamine from inhaling smoke that has nicotine. 

Over time, the repetitive behaviors of checking my phone contributed to an obsession, which made it feel like a behavioral addiction. I detested how distracted I was: I couldn’t control myself from doing something that was  mentally harming me. Instead, I let myself repeat the same actions day after day. My smartphone habit seemed just as addictive and hard to quit as smoking.  

What motivated me to end this habit was that I became so sick and tired of my obsession with checking my messages and email many times in a single day that I decided one day to limit the daily number of pickups to 10. While I could have used my daily screen time as a metric, I noticed that the average number of pickups would help the most because doing so would also help limit how much time I spent on my phone. My rationale for choosing 10 as the upper limit was that I am typically awake for 16 to 18 hours of the day, so picking up my phone at this frequency for purposes like looking up directions or checking text messages when necessary sounded like a reasonable number. 

After adhering to these limits for a few weeks, my screen time and pickups decreased substantially, which made me much happier because I felt like I finally had some agency over my mind. Nowadays, I can focus and concentrate better instead of fragmenting my attention by checking my phone. Of course, more progress must be made, but it is a good start. I must admit that it is uncomfortable to not look at the phone when waiting in line or sitting in the car, but I believe that choosing the harder path is ultimately more satisfying and rewarding than the easier one. 

Using smartphones is very different from smoking as one consists of using a handheld device while the other directly causes lung cancer and air pollution, but they are fundamentally not that distinct from a behavioral point of view. As stated previously, both habits drive addiction by affecting the brain’s release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us pleasure. This addictive aspect is why website-blocking apps such as Freedom exist to limit our time on our phones. Ironically, it is by forcing ourselves to have less freedom to do what we want on our devices that we gain more freedom in the end.

Not only that, both habits help us relax by letting us occupy ourselves with other activities. While it is obvious that smoking harms one’s physical health, the fact that smartphones have a detrimental impact on our brain’s ability to think can’t be ignored. Using a phone often is ordinary, but it is hurting us in so many indirect ways: attention span, productivity, etc. In the long run, our cognitive abilities and mental health decline. Nowadays, we don’t even know how to embrace boredom. Boredom is an uncomfortable state to be in, so we turn to our phone as if it is a digital pacifier. Although it is comforting to turn to your phone whenever you’re bored, at the end of the day this tendency prevents us from performing deep work. 

A less apparent point is that smartphone usage, exactly like smoking, has harmful secondhand effects. One involves polluting the surroundings with harmful chemicals and carcinogens, while the other one is a more subtle form of pollution. The moment someone takes out their phone in a group setting, such as eating a meal with friends, something about the group dynamic and atmosphere changes. When one person looks at their phone, this indirectly influences others to follow suit either out of social awkwardness or boredom, causing the conversation to falter and social interactions to come to a pause. In other words, even the mere presence of a smartphone is distracting. 

Smartphones are the cigarettes of this era. By coming to terms with the fact that the underlying mechanisms of smartphone addiction are related to that of smoking addiction, we can take further steps to end this mental misery that has afflicted us for too long. Enough is enough. 

Vivian Hir is a junior majoring in Computer Science and Molecular Biology. Previously, she wrote an opinion article on The Tech about the negative effects of social media.