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Why You Use Your Smartphone Too Much

What motivates excessive phone use?

  •  Blackday/Shutterstock
    Source: Blackday/Shutterstock

    My social life has suffered because of using my smartphone

  • I find it difficult to control my smartphone use
  • When I am not using my smartphone I feel agitated
  • Using my smartphone sometimes interferes with other activities
Source: Blackday/Shutterstock

How much do the above statements apply to you? Do you think you use your smartphone too much? If so, what might motivate it? The number of functions available on smartphones means that they are used extensively. Furthermore, features such as games or the ability to keep in contact with others provides a degree of pleasure or satisfaction to users. However, this extensive range of functions and activities has led to the possibility of "smartphone addiction."

Chongyang Chen and colleagues carried out a study to look at what motivates this behavior (Chen, Zhang, Gong, Zhao, Lee & Liang, 2017). For the purpose of their study, it was defined as “maladaptive dependency on the usage and the obsessive compulsive use of smartphone devices.” Users in this condition might experience the following.

  • Their smartphone use might get in the way of other important daily events such as work.
  • They find that they cannot reduce their amount of smartphone use voluntarily.
  • Their smartphones become the most prominent features in their lives.
  • They experience negative emotions in the event of being unable to use their smartphones.

Two research questions were addressed in this study. Firstly, and quite simply, what motivates harmful patterns of smartphone use? Secondly, given that there are gender differences in other technology related behaviours such as Facebook use (Sheldon, 2008), are there differences between males and females?

The researchers collected responses from 384 participants mostly between the ages of 18 and 30, using an online survey. They used five items to measure degrees of feeling addicted (for example, ‘I find it difficult to control my smartphone use’, ‘When I am not using my smartphone I feel agitated’). They used a further 15 items to measure five motivators, which were:

  • Perceived enjoyment – ‘Using my smartphone is enjoyable’
  • Social relationship – ‘The reason I use my smartphone is to socialise with others’
  • Mood regulation – ‘I have used my smartphone to forget about my worries’
  • Pastime – ‘The reason I use my smartphone is to avoid boredom
  • Conformity‘The reason I use my smartphone is to be liked by my friends’

The researchers found a relationship with the motivators enjoyment, mood regulation, pastime and conformity,meaning that if people were motivated to use their smartphones for these purposes they would be more likely to develop this pattern of behavior. Overall however they found that it had the strongest relationship to the mood regulation motive (using a smartphone when upset, or to forget about problems). However, they found that the social relationship motive—using a smartphone to socialise or to check on what other people were doing—was not related.

Gender differences

The researchers also observed that the motives for using smartphones differed between genders in the following way. The effects of perceived enjoyment and pastime were more strongly related to "smartphone addiction" for females, whereas conformity was found to be more closely related to it for males. In other words, females placed more emphasis on intrinsic motives, whereas males focused more on extrinsic motives.

The findings of this study also seem to suggest that much of the motivations are related to factors such as mood regulation or conformity. These motives may be defined as negative reinforcements (where a behaviour that is increased when a negative outcome stops). These seem to outweigh the social relationship motives, which may be defined as positive reinforcements (where a behaviour increases following the presentation of a positive outcome). Cheung, Lee and Lee (2013) found the same pattern of motivation to be evident in compulsive Facebook use. This is in contrast to the motivation behind addiction to alcohol and cigarettes, where positive reinforcement is the main motivation. For example, Copeland and Carney (2003) found that mood enhancement and relaxation (positive reinforcements) were the important motivators for smoking.

Overall, the results of this study indicate that what motivates this kind of behaviors is complex and that gender differences in the motivations are similar to other types of addictive behaviors. Finally, the findings perhaps go some way to understanding why it may be difficult to limit our smartphone use.


Chen, C., Zhang, K. Z. K., Gong, X., Zhao, S. J., Lee, M. K. O., & Liang, L. (2017) ‘Examining the effects of motives and gender differences on smartphone addiction’, Computers in Human Behaviour 75, 891-902.

Cheung, C. M., Lee, Z. W., & Lee, M. K. (2013) ‘Understanding compulsive use of Facebook through the reinforcement processes.’ In Proceedings of the 21st European conference on information systems. Utrecht, Netherlands.

Copeland, A. L., & Carney, C. E. (2003). ‘Smoking expectancies as mediators between dietary restraint and disinhibition and smoking in college women.’ Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 11, 247-251.

Sheldon, P. (2008) ‘Student favourite: Facebook and motives for its use.’ Southwestern Mass Communication Journal, 23 (2), 39-53.

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