Where Do You Keep Your Smartphone?

Some Disturbing Observations

Posted Nov 02, 2014

As someone who has studied the impact of technology for more than 30 years I am constantly surprised by how we relate to technology devices, particularly our smartphones. From the moment we awaken until bedtime our phones are never more than a few feet away from us. The research is pretty clear. Most of us check our phone before we get out of bed or at a minimum within the first 15 minutes after awakening—particularly those under 40. During the day our phone is close by and at meals we often keep it on the table. At night we use our devices in the bedroom right up until we go to sleep, set it next to us on a nightstand and if we awaken in the middle of the night we sneak a quick peek at our messages. We furtively access our phone in settings where we know it is inappropriate (during class, in an important meeting, at church, in a movie theater) and we take our phones on vacation but swear it is only for emergencies. We are not fooling ourselves.

When I ask people about their relationship with their phone they feel a tad sheepish but insistent that this is a reality that they feel they must live with. Often I hear the phrase “24/7/365” as an excuse as in, “My boss expects to be able to reach me anytime he needs me so I have to have it with me and I have to check it constantly” or “I need to be available for my kids.” One wonders how we all survived when our phone sat on a desk at home and we had to wait to check our answer machine upon arriving home from a day at work or school. Does anyone remember long lines at phone booths waiting to make calls during the day when we were away from home?

But that is not the real reason. I think that the real reason is that we are obsessed with everything our phone contains and we are constantly worried that if we don’t respond to an alert or notification immediately that something bad will happen. When I ask people about potential ramifications of “missing out” on something I get a variety of reasons ranging from, “I need to keep in touch” to “People will think I am mad at them if I don't respond immediately.” Again, this reason doesn't hold water when you truly look at whether most of us are responding to alerts or notifications that are remotely life threatening. What will truly happen if we don’t “like” our friend’s post at that moment? What will truly happen if we wait to answer a text message until we have stopped driving and arrived at our destination?

The bottom line is a bit disturbing. Most people will freely admit that they are obsessed and they would love to be able to give it up, even for just a day, but they don’t or can’t or won’t. And from what I have seen I am not sure that this is going to change soon. Let me share a few observations and I hope that you will add your own:

  • More and more people sleep with their phone next to the bed (or under their pillow) either turned on or on vibrate.
    In a recent study of college students we found that only 2% turned off their phone and put it in another room. Another 17% turned it off (or placed it on silent or airplane mode) but kept it close by in the bedroom. The remaining 81% freely admitted to leaving their phone with the ringer on or on vibrate and keeping it next to their bed or within arm’s reach. This was a major contributor to sleep disturbances in this study and in others and when I mention that to students they acknowledge that they are aware of the downsides but aren’t going to change their behavior.
  • Watch someone walking down the street and notice where her phone resides. It seems as though only a short time ago people kept their phone in a pocket or purse. Now, I am seeing far more than half the people carrying their phone in their hand. When asked “why” the answer is some variant of, “I want to know as soon as I get an alert or notification.”
  • A recent study by Dr. Corey Basch, a professor of public health at William Paterson University, tracked more than 3,700 pedestrians crossing Manhattan’s most dangerous intersections and found that nearly 30% focused their attention on their mobile device
    during the walk signal and one in four were even looking at their phones while crossing during the “don’t walk” signal.
  • We all heard about the woman who was so engrossed with her phone that she fell into a fountain but she is not alone in her “inattentional blindness.” Dr. Ira Hyman, a professor at Western Washington State University, had a clown in bright costume ride a unicycle through the middle of the main quad on campus. When asked if they saw anything unusual only 8% of cell phone users said they saw a clown but even when asked directly if they saw a clown only one in four cell phone users did compared to the majority of people just walking and not on their phone.
  • When someone does have a phone in his pocket notice how often he pats that pocket and smiles. Again, when I ask why the answer is always, “Just checking to make sure my phone is still there.” If prodded further some will admit that they hadn’t received a message in the last few minutes and want to make sure they didn't misplace their phone (even though they know that they just put it in their pocket!).
  • Watch people out to dinner and you may notice that nearly everyone has their phone either on the table or in their lap. Sure, some people have tried to use the “cell phone stack” strategy where they all put their phones in the middle of the table and anyone who accesses a phone before the bill arrives has to pop for the entire tab. But the bottom line is that is just a game and the reality is that phones appear to be placed in plain sight at restaurants and most other public locations.
  • Watch people in more “private” locations where they feel somewhat anonymous such as public restrooms, doctor’s office waiting rooms, in line at the grocery store or even sunning themselves by a pool or at the beach. A phone is always close by and almost everyone looks at that screen constantly.

We appear to have established a strange, somewhat pathological relationship with our phone. If you replace the word “phone” in most of the examples above with, say, “teddy bear,” “favorite blanket” or any other object, you would assert that the person has some severe psychological problems. And in a recent study we found that those who used their phone more often during a typical day, particularly social media, showed more symptoms of several psychiatric disorders including narcissistic personality disorder, mania, antisocial personality disorder and more. This is not to say that phone users are suffering from a psychiatric disorder but we do know from another recent study that if you take a phone away from someone who uses his/her phone all day long, their anxiety starts to increase after only 10 minutes apart from their phone and continues to increase until the phone is returned.

We are at an interesting crossroads in our relationship with technology. Will we move toward having a relationship with our phone that transcends our other relationships? The premise in the movie “Her” is not so farfetched. Or, as some pundits suggest, will we take a step back, reduce our time with devices and reacquaint ourselves with the people in our real world rather than those in our virtual worlds? Although I remain optimistic I do not see that happening any time soon. At a minimum, I am hoping that the pendulum will start to swing back from our current over involvement and settle somewhere in the middle where we manifest our understanding of this somewhat distorted reality and start to modify our behaviors so that we are getting the most out of our devices while not letting them get the most out of us. What do you think?