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This Is the Real Reason You Can't Stop Checking Your Phone

Is it addiction or obsession? An expert weights in.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

A July 2015 Gallup poll of 15,747 adult smartphone users found that half check their phone a few times an hour (41 percent) or every few minutes (11 percent). When they examined 18- to 29-year-old smartphone owners, those figures increased to 51 percent checking a few times an hour and 22 percent checking every few minutes.

This massive survey result echoes recent reports from influential news media, such as the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Time magazine, which have run stories with titles such as:

What all of these articles have in common is the hardly surprising observation that we are all checking our phones far too often—and ignoring the people directly in front of us. I have been studying the psychological impact of technology for more than three decades, well before the proliferation of laptop computers, smartphones, social media, and our need for constant connection. As an observer of people, I have seen technology trends come and go. Until recently, those trends seemed to take many years to rise to prominence and—if not adopted by enough people—eventually fade in importance. Most likely this slow pendulum swing stemmed from the fact that earlier technologies took a substantial time to be used by enough people to cause others to feel a need or desire to partake. Consumer scientists refer to this process as “penetration rate,” and have always used as a benchmark the idea that a product has penetrated society when 50 million people are using it.

Before the Internet, technology penetration rate referred to physical products, such as radio (which took 38 years to hit 50 million), telephones (20 years), and television (13 years). But the World Wide Web took a mere four years to penetrate society, as did instant messaging and iPods. And social media further changed the game: MySpace took two-and-a-half years to hit the mark; Facebook only two, and YouTube just one. Newer websites and games emerged and swept through society in months, not years. Angry Birds hit the mark in 35 days; Instagram, Snapchat, and Minecraft each took just a few months. Each new iteration of the iPhone reaches 50 million as fast as they can churn them out. Postscript: Pokémon GO took only 7 days to reach 50 million users!

That pendulum is now swinging wildly, though, and we have seen products such as Google Glass hit, gain traction, and disappear in what seems like the blink of an eye, while others such as Snapchat just keep gaining momentum. I have written often of the issues involved in this process and have spoken about our addiction to, and obsession with, technology. After writing six books and numerous journal articles based on laboratory, survey, and observational research, I think I have finally arrived at an understanding of the processes that underlie our seeming inability to put down our devices:

"It all comes down to what is happening in our brains and in our minds."

When you glance at your phone, in the absence of an alert or notification, how do you feel? I would bet that sometimes you feel happy, like when you read something on Facebook that makes you smile or watch a video that you then forward to your friends. But I'd also bet that sometimes you feel relief—that you have not missed out on something someone posted or said (FOMO); that nobody is having fun without you; or even that you are among the first to like or comment on a post.

These are two different processes: When you do an activity and subsequently feel pleasure or satisfaction and the desire to do that same action again in order to gain the feeling, then it is most likely an addiction. If, however, you do an activity and feel a sense of relief that you did not miss out on something “going around,” or that you are the first to do something, then this is most likely a sign of obsession. An obsession is not built around the brain chemistry that produces the equivalent physical feeling of pleasure. It is built around performing an act that reduces your feelings of anxiety.

Remember the movie As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson? His obsessions were many, but included washing his hands multiple times with scalding water to remove unseen germs or locking and unlocking doors to ensure that they were, indeed, locked. He had an extreme form of obsession—Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. OCD is a disorder in the DSM manual and is often treatable with psychotherapy and medication.

A third option that has been seen in the recent research literature is that when we are in public, we use our phones as a shield against having to interact with the real people around us. This may qualify as a form of social phobia or social anxiety, although the research is still divided. When you are standing in line at the supermarket, do you grab your phone to avoid talking to the people in line as we might have done just a few years ago? If so, it is likely that you may have a dash of social phobia, another anxiety-based disorder. On the other hand, you may just be bored due to the constant stimulation obtained from your phone, as compared to the lack of stimulation from simply standing in line.

I believe that if you dig down in your gut and ask yourself why you are looking at your phone, you will discover that your motivation for constant connection is a combination of pleasure and anxiety. How much of each, I believe, is based on the individual. Personally, I would say I grab the phone about 75 percent of the time for anxiety reduction and 25 percent of the time for pleasure. I watch others, and when I see some smiling as they tap keys and await return missives, I assume that they are feeling pleasure. Most often, I don’t see them smile at all, but maybe express an almost visible sigh of relief. How about you?

Regardless, the data shows that we are grabbing the phone so often that many of us are missing out on the life that is playing out right in front of us. Just look at people walking down the street, standing at a bar, sitting in a restaurant, or browsing in a bookstore. I guarantee that young and old will have their phone firmly in their palms and continue to self-interrupt to tap some keys and read some words or view pictures or videos. Spend a day noting how often people check their phones while they are working, in meetings, in class, everywhere.

In a recently completed study (submitted for publication), I asked 216 students to install an app on their phones that measured how often they unlocked the device and how many minutes they spent using it during the semester. The typical student unlocked his or her phone more than 60 times a day for a total of about 220 minutes. That means that even when they are supposed to be studying, they are unlocking their phone three to four times an hour for about three to four minutes at a time. Just enough time to check in with social media and other electronic connections and then lock it back up again. By the way, we had another group simply keep a diary of their phone use, and the numbers were almost identical. In other studies, we find similar results. People routinely check their phones every 15 minutes or less, and often without an alert or notification. If we take away their phone, they get highly anxious until it is back in their possession.

I have written often here about options to curb addiction or obsession. In "Here’s [not] Looking at You!" I talked about ways to increase our eye contact (and fight our incipient social phobia) and gain a better understanding of other people’s emotional context. In "iPhone Separation Anxiety," I gave readers suggestions for decreasing the anxious need to constantly check in with their virtual worlds at the cost of being present in the real world. In "Go the F**k to Sleep [Without Your Technology]," I provided a rationale against late-night smartphone use and nighttime awakenings to check in, as well as strategies for a better night’s sleep. Finally, in "Our Social Media Obsession," I talked about whether we are addicted or obsessed with social media and how to curb whichever neurotransmitter process is at work. In each of these posts, you can find specific strategies for helping you regain your “Humanware” to replace your obsession or addiction with your hardware and software. It is up to you as to if or when you choose to stop the pendulum swing and regain control. Nobody is making you check in every 15 minutes or so. Pay attention to see what drives your need to grab your phone to unlock whatever it offers and give the impression that it is more important than the people who stand in front of you.

More from Larry D. Rosen Ph.D.
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