Stop Checking That Phone (If You Can)

Commuters in Bangkok check their phones. Why are some people more addicted to using their smartphones than others? Natthawat Jamnapa/Getty Images

You're at the dinner table, a movie or your kid's ballet recital and your smartphone rings or buzzes. You feel compelled to look at it. Or maybe someone mentions the latest news story and you immediately jump on your phone to find all the details. Are you addicted to your phone or just attached to it? And what makes some people more dependent on their smartphones than others?

A study by Jason Chein, associate professor of psychology, and Harry Wilmer, a graduate student, at Temple University in Philadelphia looked at why some people are more fixated on their smartphones than others.

"One of the [media] claims that I thought we could go after [is] that people who are more heavily invested in their technology and mobile devices are also more likely to seek instant gratification and less able to delay gratification," Chein says.

The researchers wanted to know whether people were more heavily invested in technology because they were looking for a reward (for instance, a burst of dopamine from getting a lot of "likes" from a social media post) or whether they were struggling with impulse control and couldn't stop reaching for their phone once a thought related to a friend entered their brains, for example.

The study authors asked 91 undergraduates about their smartphone use: How much time did they spend checking their phones for incoming messages or posting updates to social media? They also asked the students questions about their ability to delay gratification — would they take a small amount of cash immediately or wait longer to get more money? Finally, the researchers gave the students tasks to assess their impulse control.

The results showed that the people who constantly used their mobile devices were less likely to delay gratification. Chein emphasizes that the study only included college students, so he doesn't know if this finding applies to the U.S. population as a whole. However, he says, "What we found ... [is] that the relationship [between user and phone] was entirely explained by differences in impulsivity." Chein and his team plan to repeat the study with other demographic groups, particularly adolescents.

Some of the students in the study checked their phones or texted up to 1,000 times a day.

Chein is reluctant to say whether the constant checkers in his study might be addicted to their smartphones. "When you say over-dependence and call it addiction, you're passing a judgment. You're deciding that it's good or bad. And I've really been trying to be careful never to make that assumption, because it's where the science is very limited," he says. "You don't call it an addiction if they're doing everything just fine in their lives and they just happen to enjoy some behavior. It becomes an addiction when it becomes disruptive."

However, he admits he saw behavior that seems mighty close to addiction. Some of the students checked their phones or texted up to 1,000 times a day, he says. "It sounds insane, on the one hand. Then I'm thinking, 'But these are functional college students. They're here, they're going to classes, they enjoy their friendships, they're maintaining relationships with people at home.'"

While Chein may not want to use the term "addiction," as related to technology, in some other countries, it's considered a serious problem. South Korea has treatment centers for young people who seem addicted to technology. At the centers, phones and computers are taken away from young people, who are encouraged to read books, play games and interact with others.

Chein attended a workshop where one of the South Korean researchers discussed the country's treatment centers. "The way it's implemented there would never happen in the U.S. because of important cultural differences and the way that the [South Korean] government can restrain behavior," he says. "For example, there's a curfew on internet usage for certain ages. They shut the system off. There are penalties for being on the internet outside of that."

Curious to learn more? You can find lots of information by doing an internet search — which requires going on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Let's hope we're not contributing to the problem.

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