The dark side of smart devices

Smart devices simplify our lives and provide us with data really quickly – all the while taking over our mind for exchange; Jaan Aru, a researcher at the University of Tartu, offers a solution.

Have you ever tried to eat ten ice creams in a row? Too much of a good thing can make you sick. Excessive amount of vitamins creates an adverse reaction in the body. Too much sun is bad for your skin. If you eat too many strawberries, it’s bad for your stomach. It’s exactly the same with smart devices. They simplify our lives and provide us with data really quickly – all the while taking over our mind for exchange.

So, what’s the problem? Well, our brains like new input. Novelty is an important learning signal for the brain, because when an organism faces something the brain couldn’t foresee (something new), it’s time to update the brain’s model of the world. The brain has a trick to make sure learning new stuff works efficiently: novel input automatically leads to a pleasure sensation. This pleasure signal enhances learning and hence ensures that the novel aspect of the world is memorised. Smart devices offer plenty of novelty so they bring lots of pleasure, too. Each move of thumb on the smart device brings new input to the screen and hence causes small pleasure signals in your brain. The trouble is that in the brain pleasure always brings the risk of addiction.

Are you addicted to your smart device? All addictions share the symptom that the object of addiction (be it heroin, gambling or smart devices) hijacks attention. So if you are in a forest in spring, or enjoying the beach, or at an important meeting or just having a fun night out, or driving the car on a busy street and you desperately feel the need to check your smart phone, you are one of us – a “smart junkie”.

Being addicted to a smart device does not seem too bad: after all, one could be addicted to worse things. Right? I am not sure. Smart device addiction has at least three serious problems:

  • people are not aware of it – everyone knows that alcohol or drugs or gambling might be addictive, but smart devices are up to now seen only in positive light (yes, that’s a key reason why I am writing this: so you, my dear reader, would become aware of the problem);
  • smart-device addicts can also be dangerous: for example, many experiments with driving simulators have shown that people reading an e-mail or a text message while driving have more (simulated) accidents. Do you believe the experiments or want to give it a try yourself?
  • kids get addicted to smart-devices – we wouldn’t even think of giving cigarettes or alcohol or drugs to our kids, but we equip them with tablets and smartphones. That’s a problem. Compared with our “old” brains, our children’s brains are much more plastic, thus much more receptive to both good and bad things packed in with smart devices. An early exposure to smart devices turns children into really dexterous users, meanwhile causing deficits in some other things that kids are supposed to become most proficient in: comprehending others and linguistic development. Both of these uniquely human features need communication and direct contact with other human beings. When you hand your child a tablet, so you could sit undisturbed, engaged with your own smart device, you’re harming your brain, but you are also messing with your kid’s brain development at a critical moment.

Simple tricks to get a hold of the problem

Don’t be too upset: I know many smart people who have this addiction, I once was a smart junkie too. At one point, I understood that I couldn’t think as sharply anymore and my attention span had decreased. Again and again my attention moved to my new smart phone: has anyone sent me an email or texted me? My phone ruled my attention, while I needed to focus on my work. The object of addiction – the smart phone – dominated my mind and my world.

This is not a story of a miraculous cure – in the case of addiction, there is nothing like that. But I’ll give you a few simple tricks that helped me to get a hold of the problem.

  • Put your smart device into your bag when at work or school. Disable the notifications that make sound. Concentrate on your work for 25 minutes, then you can watch and hug your tablet as a reward for five minutes.
  • See whether you can increase the absence from your smart phone from 25 minutes to two hours to a full day? Your brain will thank you.
  • Don’t use a smart device while driving: experiments show that it increases the chances of a traffic accident, so it would be just plainly stupid.
  • Make up some simple rules for restricting the use of smart devices at home. For example: nobody uses a smart device while eating. Make it easier to resist the temptation: nobody brings a smart device to the table.
  • Your child should receive the first smart device as late as possible. Yes, it’s easier to let the device raise them, but the brain of a small child needs input that comes from the parents.
  • Do not let your child go to bed with a smart device. Children have an even harder time to put away the gadget than us, so it would keep them engaged, reducing their sleep time. But sleep is crucial for our brains, while Facebook is not. So do the smart choice for your kids and for yourself.


The English version was originally published by the University of Tartu blog. The cover image is illustrative.

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