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Smartphones are the new cigarettes

Smoking and getting sucked into your phone have more in common than you might think.

Vivian Hir sitting on a park bench by the Charles River
The author rereads Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, PhD ’09, the book that introduced her to the idea that smartphones are this generation’s nicotine.Courtesy of Vivian Hir

One evening last summer, I ate dinner in a food court alone. Although I could have looked at my phone as I sat at my own table, I didn’t like the idea of distracting myself while eating. So instead, I observed the people around me. I saw two friends glued to their own devices, a dad looking at his phone instead of his toddler, and kids playing games on their parents’ phones. As I watched, it became all too clear: phones were stealing people’s attention. 

But not long after, I too found myself checking my phone more often than I needed to. Like the people in the food court, I’d let my smartphone become just as addictive as a pack of cigarettes. 

It was in the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, PhD ’09, that I first encountered the idea of smartphones as this generation’s nicotine. When I came across the passage in which Newport compared the goals of tech companies to those of tobacco companies, I initially found the claim to be a bit of a stretch. I was aware of technology’s negative effects on society and saw the parallels that might be drawn between the two industries, but using a smartphone seemed much more innocuous than smoking. I have since realized that I let the allure of my phone’s colorful, bright display deceive me. 

Over the last year I’ve started noticing similarities between scrolling and smoking. I had a lot of unscheduled time in the lab last summer, so I decided to check my phone for a short stretch once every hour or two. Then, since I was supposed to be focused on research, I turned it off so I wouldn’t pick it up until my next break. 

This may not sound like a big deal. A few weeks into working in the lab, however, I realized that my phone breaks were like the smoke breaks some workers feel compelled to take every hour. Though different on the surface, the two behaviors are similar psychologically. 

What makes smoking enjoyable is that nicotine affects brain chemistry by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us pleasure. The effect lasts for only a few minutes, and its fleeting nature causes people to crave it again. Checking your phone also releases a bit of dopamine, and—much like a smoker—I began to crave that hit in part because it distracted me from the unpleasant feeling of boredom.

Although it’s comforting to use our phones as digital pacifiers, this can reduce our capacity for creativity.

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? 

You’d think my growing awareness that phone breaks felt like smoke breaks would have led me to break this habit as soon as possible. But it wasn’t until the middle of the fall semester that I finally took action. It bothered me how often I was checking my phone, especially for email and messages. To make matters worse, I was averaging 30% to 50% more screen time per day than I had in the previous school year. 

Over time, the repetitive behavior of checking my phone contributed to an obsession. Logically speaking, I knew that there wasn’t much point in checking multiple times in case I’d received a single new email or text when I could wait a few hours and read several messages at once. Despite this, I felt that the technology was hijacking my brain’s chemical machinery, leaving me feeling out of control. 

I became so tired of being distracted that I decided to limit the number of times I picked up my phone each day to 10. While I could have used screen time as a metric, I reasoned that limiting the number of pickups would force me to reduce that too. I chose 10 as the upper limit because it seemed reasonable relative to the 16 to 18 hours I am typically awake each day. With 10 chances, I’d undoubtedly be able to look up directions or check text messages when necessary. 

After I’d adhered to these limits for a few weeks, my screen time and pickup totals decreased substantially, which made me much happier because I felt I had regained agency over my mind. Nowadays, I can focus and concentrate better instead of fragmenting my attention by checking my phone. Of course, there’s room for more progress, but it is a good start. It can be uncomfortable to keep from looking at my phone when I’m waiting in line or sitting in the back of the car, but I believe that not succumbing to our digital desires is ultimately more satisfying and rewarding than using our phones as a distraction. 

Using handheld devices may not seem as dangerous as smoking, which directly causes lung cancer and air pollution. But the similar element of addictiveness is why website-blocking apps such as Freedom exist. Ironically, it is by imposing more limits on our use of these devices that we gain more freedom in the end.

Although phone usage does not harm one’s physical health directly, we can’t ignore its detrimental impact on our cognitive abilities, our productivity, and our mental health. According to a 2023 paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, even the presence of a phone is distracting and diminishes cognitive performance. With our phones always available to entertain us, we don’t know how to embrace boredom, an uncomfortable but sometimes useful state. Although it is comforting to use our phones as digital pacifiers, this can reduce our capacity for creativity and for what Newport calls deep work. 

What’s more, just as smoking pollutes the air that others breathe, smartphone usage also has harmful secondhand effects. The moment someone takes out a phone in a group setting, such as eating a meal with friends, others are likely to follow suit out of social awkwardness or boredom. As a result, conversations falter, and social interactions are paused or even halted. Again, the mere presence of a smartphone is distracting. 

Smartphones are the cigarettes of this era. By recognizing that the underlying mechanisms of smartphone addiction are related to those of smoking addiction, we can take steps to kick the habit and make sure our phones are serving us, not hurting us.

Vivian Hir ’25, a computer science and molecular biology major, now picks up her iPhone an average of 12 times a day, and her screen time averages 26 minutes a day. A version of this essay originally appeared as “Smartphones and Cigarettes Go Hand in Hand” in The Tech

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