The “Digital Drug” - What Makes You Text & Drive Despite Known Dangers

10 Nov 2014 | Dr. David Greenfield

Tagged: People, Responsible Use of Technology,

Why do some people text and drive, even when they know it’s dangerous?

The answer is dopamine, a neurochemical that we experience as pleasure in the midbrain. I call dopamine a “digital drug” because we get a little squirt of it every time we get positive news from a friend or loved one by text, email or social media. Our brain is conditioned to seek that positive “hit”, leading many of us to check for messages compulsively.

While 98 percent of people surveyed say they know that texting while driving is dangerous, many rationalize their texting-and-driving behavior – a classic sign of addiction. 

That’s especially problematic – and potentially deadly – when we get a message on our phone while we’re driving.

A new survey commissioned by The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and AT&T found that three-in-four people admit to glancing at their phones while driving, and 30 percent say they do so because it is a habit.

They’re right. It’s a neurobehavioral habit – a well-encoded neural-pathway in the brain that can easily facilitate a compulsive pattern of behavior that defies logic and reason, but that is subtly rewarded with elevations of dopamine.

The key here is that the dopamine elevation is variable and unpredictable, just like a slot machine. What leads us to pick up our phone is that we never know when it’s going to beep, ring or buzz, or what we are going to see on the screen. We have become classically conditioned to check our phones automatically, without thinking, every time we hear that ring or vibration. It’s the variable unpredictability that keeps the brain hyper-vigilant to those incoming positive messages.

While 98 percent of people surveyed say they know that texting while driving is dangerous, many rationalize their texting-and-driving behavior – a classic sign of addiction. Only six percent of people surveyed feel they are addicted. But more than twice that many show the signs in their responses to other questions, particularly when asked the amount of time one checks and spends on their smart phone.

So why the discrepancy? We know that there’s a separation between attitudes and behavior. We can know or think something is right, wrong, or dangerous but our behavior often reflects a completely different reality. Another word for this might be denial. The nexus of denial is typically found when our brain is stimulated by some mood-altering substance or behavior—in this case by the ever present buzz, beep and ring of our Smartphone and its call to action even while we’re driving!

For many, awareness of the dangers of texting and driving is enough to make them stop.

For others, it takes a personal commitment, like a pledge to a loved one or the urging of a friend.

But for some people, the urge to text while driving is a compulsion. And for those people, more is needed.

The It Can Wait campaign is helping people find ways to resist the urge to text while driving by providing help. Here are some ways you can take action:

  • Use #X. Just send “#X” to pause your conversations before you drive. It’s a simple and effective way to eliminate a dangerous distraction.
  • Download the free DriveMode app that automatically silences incoming message alerts while driving.
  • Find your own “Drive Mode.” Create a routine that helps you avoid the temptation to text while driving. It could be #X, DriveMode or another app, hands-free technology, or even just turning your phone to silent – whatever works for you.
  • Speak up. If you’re a passenger in a car where the driver needs to text, offer to be their “designated texter” and text for them.
Whether it’s those techniques or others, for some, the choice not to text and drive may need to involve something more than will power.

About the Author

Dr. David Greenfield

Founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction


Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Connecticut School of Medicine, is based in West Hartford, CT.