Smartphone seduction

Social psychologist Adam Alter cautions against the allure of addictive tech devices 

Published 7 years ago on Apr 23, 2017 4 minutes Read

A couple of years ago, Kevin Holesh, an app developer, decided that he wasn’t spending enough time with his family. The culprit was technology, and his smartphone was the biggest offender. Holesh wanted to know how much time he was spending on his phone each day, so he designed an app called Moment. Moment tracked Holesh’s daily screen time, tallying how long he used his phone each day. I spent months trying to reach Holesh because he lives by his word. On the Moment website, he writes that he may be slow to reply to email because he’s trying to spend less time online. Eventually, after my third attempt, Holesh replied with a polite apology and agreed to talk. “The app stops tracking when you’re just listening to music or making phone calls,” Holesh told me. “It starts up again when you’re looking at your screen — sending emails or browsing the web, for example.” Holesh was spending an hour and fifteen minutes a day glued to his screen, which seemed like a lot. Some of his friends had similar concerns, but also had no idea how much time they lost to their phones. So Holesh shared the app. “I asked people to guess what their daily usage was and they were almost always 50 percent too low.”

I downloaded Moment several months ago. I guessed I was using my phone for an hour a day at the most, and picking it up perhaps ten times a day. I wasn’t proud of those numbers, but they sounded about right. After a month, Moment reported that I was using my phone for an average of three hours a day, and picking it up an average of forty times. I was stunned. I wasn’t playing games or surfing the web for hours, but somehow I managed to spend twenty hours a week staring at my phone.

I asked Holesh whether my numbers were typical. “Absolutely,” he said. “We have thousands of users, and their average usage time is just under three hours. They pick up their phones an average of thirty-nine times a day.” Holesh reminded me that these were the people who were concerned enough about their screen time to download a tracking app in the first place. There are millions of smartphone users who are oblivious or just don’t care enough to track their usage — and there’s a reasonable chance they’re spending even more than three hours on their phones each day.

Perhaps there was just a small clump of heavy users who spent all day, every day on their phones, dragging the average usage times higher. But Holesh shared the usage data of eight thousand Moment users to illustrate that wasn’t the case at all: Most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day — and many far longer. This isn’t a minority issue. If, as guidelines suggest, we should spend less than an hour on our phones each day, 88 percent of Holesh’s users were overusing. They were spending an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones — more time than any other daily activity, except sleeping. Each month almost one hundred hours was lost to checking email, texting, playing games, surfing the web, reading articles, checking bank balances, and so on. Over the average lifetime, that amounts to a staggering eleven years. On average they were also picking up their phones about three times an hour. This sort of overuse is so prevalent that researchers have coined the term “nomophobia” to describe the fear of being without mobile phone contact (an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”).

Smartphones rob us of time, but even their mere presence is damaging. In 2013, two psychologists invited pairs of strangers into a small room and asked them to engage in conversation. To smooth the process, the psychologists suggested a topic: why not discuss an interesting event that happened to you over the past month? Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat idle nearby, while for others the phone was replaced by a paper notebook. Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere existence, even when they aren’t in active use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely.