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Does Silencing Notifications Curb Compulsive Phone Use?

The results of a new study may surprise you.

Key points

  • A new study shows that silencing notifications makes people more likely to check their phones.
  • The uncertainty created by the silent phone can, ironically, increase the urge to check it.
  • People highly prone to the fear of missing out are especially prone to checking their silenced devices.
Andrea Piacquadio courtesy Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio courtesy Pexels

As mobile phones have become an increasing central aspect of our lives, psychologists and laypeople alike have become concerned with compulsive smartphone use. Whether or not smartphone addiction is an actual addiction is debated by experts. Nonetheless, with the average American spending nearly 5 hours a day on their smartphone, many people are troubled by their inability to ignore their phones and are looking for ways to disconnect.

One popular method is to turn off notifications. The assumption is that being aware of each message and alert creates an irresistible urge to find out what's behind that notification chime. So, turning off notifications should make it easier for people to simply forget about their smartphones. A new study by Mengqi Liao and S. Shyam Sundar, just published in Computers and Human Behavior, tested the effects of silencing notifications.

The study

The researchers surveyed 138 iPhone users over a four-day period, asking them to report their phone usage from the Screen Time tool. The tool allowed the researchers to get objective data about whether notifications were turned on or off, how many notifications were received each day, the total time people spent on their phones, and the number of times they picked up their phones. Their results, surprisingly, showed that people were more likely to check their phones when notifications were silent than when they were turned on.

Who is most prone to these effects?

The researchers also tested whether certain types of people would be more prone to checking their phones. All participants completed a questionnaire that measured the extent to which they possess a Fear of Missing Out (FoMO). FoMO is a fear that others are having great experiences without you, coupled with a strong desire to maintain constant connection with others in order to know what they're doing. Those high in FoMO have a tendency to spend more time online and check their smartphones more frequently. They also report more frequent distractions from their electronic devices. In this study, Liao and Sundar found that the tendency for silencing the phone to increase phone-checking was especially strong for those high in FoMO.

Why does silencing your phone make it even more irresistible?

Silencing notifications creates uncertainty about whether or not there is anything important or interesting requiring your attention. This, ironically, can actually make us more, rather than less, likely to check our phones when notifications are silent. While many studies have shown that receiving more notifications tends to increase phone-checking, this isn't due to the mere presence of the notification chime. Rather, it is due to the knowledge that there may be something of interest behind that chime. Naturally, people will check their phone when they receive a notification. But when phones are silenced, people don't know if they have messages or not. So they will check their phones even more frequently than they actually receive notifications, in order to ensure that they aren't missing anything. And this is especially true for people who are already overanxious about missing out on what others are doing.

What should you do if you want to curb your phone use?

These results suggest that the common advice to silence your phone if you want to avoid distractions is mistaken. It can actually make the problem worse. The study authors suggest some remedies that may be more effective than a blanket "Do not disturb" setting:

  • Silence notifications that are unimportant (e.g., from shopping apps), but keep them on for the types of notifications that you're most anxious to receive (e.g., text messages). This is something that mobile phone operating systems could further develop to help users control their phone usage.
  • Use a locked screen that displays notifications without requiring you to open up the full phone interface. This can allow you to check updates without spending too much time on your phone as a result. Receiving notifications on a smartwatch may also have similar effects.

This study shows that if you're constantly distracted by your phone, the simple solution of switching to "Do not disturb" mode is more likely to exacerbate than solve the problem.

More from Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
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