Everywhere you look, people are checking their smartphone with great frequency — and not just teens and college students.
For some, smartphone behavior has become compulsive, with negative effects on their lives.
Scientists at the University of Washington (UW) found a series of triggers, shared by all age groups, that initiated and ended habitual smartphone use.
The researchers also investigated solutions smartphone users created to curb an undesirable level of use.
The team presented its findings May 7 at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Our findings primarily target designers, helping them understand what makes digital experiences meaningful for people. What we learned also shows that designing apps that are easy to pick up and put down at will is better for users than combating attention-grabbing apps with lockout mechanisms,” Alexis Hiniker, PhD, co-author of the study, told Healthline.
Hiniker is also an assistant professor in the Information School at the University of Washington who specializes in human-computer interaction. She’s also the director of the UW User Empowerment Lab.
Interviewees revealed four common triggers for compulsive use: unoccupied moments, such as waiting to meet a friend; before or during tedious and repetitive tasks; socially awkward situations; or waiting for an anticipated message or notification.
Participants also reported common triggers that ended their compulsive phone use: competing demands from the real world, such as meeting up with a friend or needing to drive somewhere; the realization that they had been on their phone for a half-hour; and noticing content they’d already seen.
The team was surprised to find that triggers were the same across age groups.
“We were most struck by how similar people’s behaviors were, regardless of age,” Hiniker said. “Although high school students were more likely to talk about using their phones as cover for awkward situations, most of the themes we saw cut across age groups.”
What the study found
“Our findings also describe in detail what compulsive phone use is like in the moment, the factors that trigger it, and the factors that help users break out of that cycle,” Hiniker said.
Hiniker explains her study began when she and her colleagues listened to people talk about their frustrations with the way they interacted with their smartphones.
However, all of those interviewed told of phone experiences that had personal and persistent meaning.
“That is very motivating for me,” she said. “The solution is not to get rid of this technology; it provides enormous value. So, the question is, how do we support that value without bringing along all the baggage?”
In late 2017 and early 2018, Hiniker and her team interviewed 39 Seattle-area smartphone users in three groups between the ages of 14 and 64: high school and college students and adults with college degrees. (Thirty-nine people is a large sample for the type of in-depth, qualitative work she and her team conducted, she says.)
The researchers interviewed the participants, asking them questions about which of the apps on their phone were most likely to lead to compulsive behavior.
“Many participants cited social media apps as experiences they turned to compulsively,” Hiniker said. “But a lot of others came up as well: casual games, YouTube, email, and text messaging.”
Larry Rosen, PhD, also studies compulsive smartphone use and has discovered positive ways to change user behavior.
Rosen is professor emeritus and former chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills. A research psychologist and computer educator, he’s recognized as an international expert in the psychology of technology.
In 2016, Rosen began conducting studies with 375 college students and 75 high school students.
Rosen also learned that some people check their phones often out of boredom.
Researchers call this “nomophobia” — a combination of the words no, mobile, and phobia — defined as fear of being without your phone. This phenomenon is also called FOMO, or fear of missing out or not being connected. (Teens spent the bulk of their time on social media, he says.)
In fact, some of Rosen’s study participants reported that they got up in the middle of the night to check their phones.
Three-quarters of his participants said they left their phones on ring or vibrate to see if any messages would come in.
Rosen says the anxiety of getting up to check your phone can affect your health, as it leads directly to getting a bad night’s sleep.
Rosen created lists of strategies for his student participants. He offered them four categories of ways to make changes to their phones, or to use their phones in unique ways.
The categories were communication, focus and attention, enhanced sleep, and enhanced well-being. The goal was to enhance their smartphone experience.
To improve sleep, Rosen told his participants to set their phones on gray screen at night, which removes all colors.
“We told them to tell their phones to forget their passwords and to take their phones out of the bedroom an hour before they go to sleep,” he said. “We also gave them alternatives. Use a meditation app to help them relax, or select ‘Do Not Disturb’ for 30 minutes so they could concentrate on their studies. Lots of them used Night Shift to switch off blue light on their phones.
“I asked them to do this for only three weeks. Then, I asked them to turn in a paper about their minutes usage and unlocks. I asked, ‘How did it go?’ Some people even sent me screenshots of their screen data. A lot of them said, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep doing this. It made positive changes in my life,’” he said.
Of Rosen’s 375 participants, 200 said the suggested changes in use freed up a lot of their time each day.
Hiniker’s team asked their participants to identify an aspect of their behavior they wanted to change and to draw an idea of how their phone could help them achieve it.
Many sketched a lockout mechanism that would prevent them from using their phones for a specified period. Participants, however, admitted that although they felt bad about their behavior, they were ambivalent about using their proposed solutions.
This finding indicated a subtler relationship with smartphones.
“If the phone weren’t valuable at all, then sure, the lockout mechanism would work great,” Hiniker said. “We could just stop having phones, and the problem would be solved. But that’s not really the case.”
Instead, the team discovered that participants found meaning when apps connected them with the real world and enhanced their relationships with friends and family — meaningful experiences that transcended the moment of use.
One scientist says it’s not smartphones that are the problem but the apps we use.
“Individuals are no more addicted to smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to bottles,” Mark Griffiths, PhD, told Healthline. A distinguished professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) in England, he’s also the director of the International Gaming Research Unit of the NTU Psychology Department.
“For the very small minority that have problematic smartphone use, they have addictions on the smartphone, not to it. It is the applications on smartphones that can prove troublesome rather than the phone itself,” he said.
Most studies that examine smartphone addiction really examine social media addiction, he says. Social networking applications, rather than gambling or gaming apps, tend to take up the most time.
“Most news stories about ‘smartphone addicts’ are actually about habitual use,” he said.
Such use may have problematic elements that might have an impact on the individual’s education and/or occupation in terms of decreased productivity or impact on relationships by ignoring their loved ones. “But this is not addiction,” Griffiths said.
Hiniker says people can do many small things to bring their own behaviors in line with their intentions.
The biggest change will come from new design approaches, which are already being developed.
“The best thing people can do is demand better experiences from developers and vote with their dollar,” she said. “Use apps that make it easy to engage in ways you feel good about.”