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Patterns of compulsive use of smartphones suggest how to get rid of the habit


IMAGE: UW researchers have uncovered a series of triggers, common in all age groups, that begin and end the usual use of smartphones.
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Credit: Jonathan Tran / University of Washington

Wherever you look, people are looking at the screens.

In the decade when smartphones have become ubiquitous, we now have a feeling almost as common as smartphones themselves: getting sucked into that black hole of looking at those specific applications – you know what they are – and then a half hour passed before you know it .

Researchers at the University of Washington conducted detailed interviews to find out why we compulsively check our phones. They found a number of triggers, common among age groups, that start and end the usual use of smartphones. The team also explored user-generated solutions to stop unwanted use of the phone. The results will be presented on May 7 at the ACM CHI conference of 2019 on human factors in computer systems in Glasgow, Scotland.

"For some years now I have been observing the experiences of people with smartphones and listening to people talk about their frustration with the way they get involved with their phones," said co-author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at UW's Information School. "But on the other hand, when we ask people what they think is meaningful about cell phone use, no one says," Ah, nothing. "Everyone can point to phone experiments that have a personal and persistent meaning .

"This is very motivating for me.The solution is not to get rid of this technology, it provides a huge value, so the question is: how can we support this value without bringing in all the luggage?"

Hiniker and his team interviewed three groups of smartphone users: high school students, college students, and adults who graduated from college. The 39 subjects were smartphone users in the Seattle area between the ages of 14 and 64 years. Interviews began with basic questions and a "think out loud" demonstration in which participants passed the applications on their phones. The interviewers then asked more detailed questions about the participants in the applications pointed out as more likely to lead to compulsive behavior.

"We were hoping to have a holistic view of participants' behaviors," said first author Jonathan Tran, a UW student studying human design and engineering.

In general, respondents had four common triggers to start compulsively using their phones:

  • During unoccupied moments, such as waiting for a friend to appear,
  • Before or during tedious and repetitive tasks
  • When in socially awkward situations
  • When they expected to receive a message or notification

The group also had common triggers that ended with the compulsive use of the phone:

  • Competing real-world demands such as finding a friend or driving somewhere
  • Realizing they were on the phone half an hour ago
  • Knowing what content they've seen

The team was surprised to find that the triggers were the same across all age groups.

"It does not mean that teenagers use their phones in the same way as adults, but I think that compulsive itching back to the phone works the same way in all these groups," Hiniker said. "People talked about everything on the same terms: high school students said," Whenever I have a dead moment, if I have a minute between classes, I take the phone back. And the adults would say, "Whenever I have a dead moment, if I have a minute between seeing patients at work, I pick up my phone."

The researchers asked the participants to identify something about the behavior they would like to change and then to draw an idea on how the phone could help them achieve it.

"Many of the participants outlined" locking "mechanisms, where the phone essentially prevented them from using it for a certain period of time," Tran said. "But participants mentioned how, despite feeling bad about their behavior, they did not feel bad enough to use their outlined solutions. There was some ambivalence."

For the team, this finding pointed to a more subtle idea behind people's relationship with their phones.

"If the phone was not valuable, then of course the locking mechanism would work very well. We could just stop having phones, and the problem would be solved," Hiniker said. "But that's not really the case."

Instead, the researchers found that participants found meaning in a diverse set of experiences, particularly when applications allowed them to connect to the real world. One participant talked about how a memes generator helped her interact with her sister because they identified all the time. Another participant mentioned that the Kindle application allowed her to connect with the parent who was reading the same books.

"People describe it as an economic calculation," Hiniker said. "Like, how much time did you spend with this app and how much of that time is actually invested in something lasting that transcends that specific time of use?" Some experiences promote a lot of compulsive use and this dilutes the time people spend on meaningful activities. "

When it comes to designing the next wave of smartphones, Hiniker recommends that designers shift away from locking mechanisms throughout the system. Instead, applications should allow users to control their own involvement. And people should decide if an app is worth their time.

"People have a good sense of what's important to them." Hiniker said. "They can try to adapt what's on their phone to support things that they consider meaningful."


Other co-authors are Katherine Yang, a UW student studying human-centered design and engineering, and Katie Davis, a professor at UW's iSchool.

For more information, contact Hiniker at

Posted online at: http: // /news/2019 /04 /29 /patterns of compulsive use of smartphones

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