Why You Can't Stop Checking Your Phone

Over the weekend I was at a housewarming with a few friends. At one point in the evening, two of us were called out for incessantly being on our phones. I hadn't realized how much time I spent on it over the course of the evening and mused that it isn’t Apple’s fault my iPhone battery dies so quickly when it was brought to my attention. In an effort to unplug and be present with our friends, we tossed our phones in the corner of the room. Being ten feet away from my phone felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t even last an hour before picking it up again.

The physiological stress reaction in response to not being able to check a cell phone is something that affects many smartphone users. Constant use of smartphones hinders communication and signals rudeness is social setting, but this inability is psychologically based and can be downright dangerous in other settings.

The dangers of texting and driving have received a great deal of publicity and nearly everyone agrees it is hazardous. In fact, 94% of people believe it should be illegal, but 33% of American adults do it each month anyways. The numbers behind texting and driving speak for themselves. Texting while driving doubles the likelihood of getting into an accident and in 2011 alone texting caused 213,000 car crashes, 387,000 injuries, and 2,331 deaths. We know the dangers and think it should be outlawed, yet we’re doing it anyways. Why?

When standing in line or waiting at a stop light, there is a seemingly physical urge to look at your smartphone. When your phone vibrates, it feels as if that text message is burning a hole in your pocket, compelling you to check it. Psychology tells us this is a conditioned stress based response. The notifications on a smartphone induce the physiological markers of stress and the only way to reduce that stress, urge, or anxiety is to check the phone.

Your phone goes off, you get the urge to check it, you check your phone, and then the urge goes away. If you think back to your introduction to psychology class, this is an example of operant conditioning, and more specifically, negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is the process of increasing the likelihood a behavior will occur by removing an unpleasant stimulus after the behavior occurs. In the example of your smartphone, you checking your smartphone (the behavior) removes the urge or stress (the unpleasant stimulus) so you’re more likely to continue checking it in the future. You check your phone and bad feeling goes away so you keep checking it. It’s a cyclical and cumulative process. This process of negative reinforcement is largely responsible for how the compulsions of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are developed, maintained, and strengthened. In many ways, attached smartphone users are similar to individuals with OCD.

As this pattern of negative reinforcement repeats, the responses are strengthened and become automatic. Like me at the party, many people respond to their phone without thinking or even realizing they are doing so. In other words, using your smartphone becomes an automatic process.

Automatic processing is the result of our brains creating shortcuts for things we do frequently, so we can save cognitive resources for more complex or important tasks. Your phone has programmed your brain to habitually check it, and to send out an unpleasant feeling when you don’t. Recent research has shown people whose cellphone use is driven by such automated habits are more likely to text and drive. These cognitive processes are the reason people text and drive when they know they shouldn’t or interact with their phone in the presence of others despite knowing they are being rude. Keep in mind, these phenomena do not justify such behavior, they merely explain it.

Psychology has not been as helpful at finding quick and simple ways to reduce phone checking compulsions as it has explaining it, but there are some in the works. I think exploratory interventions for texting and driving and should target the compulsory feelings that spur us to check our phones. I would consider applying treatments typically used for OCD like cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT). Prolonged Exposure is one of those treatments. To use PE, the individual would be exposed to that stressful feeling of knowing you have a text and not being able to check it for an extended period of time. By having this feeling, not being able to check it and then being shown that nothing bad happened from not checking it that stress response is lessened over time.

Systematic desensitization with reciprocal inhibition may also have merit as a treatment. That big technical name represents a treatment that is typically used to treat phobias. Essentially, the person is walked through a series of anxiety producing scenarios (in this case would include thinking you have an important text message, notification, or alert) while going through relaxation exercises. Pairing the stress inducing stimulus (thinking you have a text) with relaxation techniques teaches the body to automatically manage the stress of not checking a smartphone.

Using smartphones at inappropriate times can be explained by basic psychology, so interventions to reduce it should feature psychological methods. Shaming people, threatening them with jail time, or disabling their phones only addresses a symptom and ignores the root cause of the behavior. Even using behavior modification techniques, there is not a simple solution to reducing dependence on smartphones as everyone knows how hard it is to break a habit. Awareness is the first step to changing this behavior, especially since smartphone use has become an automatic process for many people. If you see someone glued to their phone at an inappropriate time, it is worth bringing it to their attention because like me at the party, they may not even realize they are doing it.

Follow me on Twitter @Aaron_Kraus