Study Highlights the Extent and Impact of Smartphone Use

You’re in line at the grocery store or waiting for a train during your morning commute. You look up for a second and notice that everyone, including you, is gazing down at their smartphones.

This sight isn’t too hard to imagine – scrolling through our Facebook feeds or texting has become the new normal not only during the quiet moments in our days, but also when we should be dedicating our full attention to other activities like working, catching up with a friend, or even driving.

What impacts do these behaviors have on our lives beyond the screen?

Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist Nancy Etcoff, PhD, recently teamed up with Motorola to develop a global survey designed to better understand smartphone habits and their effects on relationships.

The results highlight the pervasiveness of smartphone use and identify a few worrying trends, especially among younger generations, but also suggest we’re not too far gone to regain what Motorola calls “phone-life balance” in their press release.

The study

The survey was fielded online to 4,418 smartphone users aged 16 to 65 in the US, Brazil, France, and India from November 30 to December 26, 2017. Respondents were divided into four age categories: Gen Z (age 16-20), Millennials (age 21-37), Gen Xers (age 38-53), and Baby Boomers (age 54-65).

Study questions investigated topics around phone use behaviors across generations (ex: “What is the longest you’ve gone without checking your smartphone?”), and sought to understand the impact of smartphones on relationships and the physical and social environment (ex: “Agree or disagree – at times, I find myself using my smartphone instead of spending time with people who are important to me and want to spend time with me”).

Dr. Etcoff contributed to the research design, survey development and interpretation of results.

The findings

Overall, the study found that smartphones play an important positive and negative role in everyday behaviors and interactions.

Approximately 60% of respondents agree that smartphones help them stay connected to their loved ones and get the information they need when they need it.

However, the team also identified several negative effects and behaviors surrounding smartphone use. They pinpointed three key problematic behaviors:

  1. Compulsive Checking: 49 percent of respondents agree that they check their phone more often than they would like, and 44 percent agree they feel compelled to constantly check their smartphone.
  2. Excessive Phone Time: 35 percent agree that they are spending too much time using their smartphone, and 34 percent believe they would be happier if they spent less time on their phone. 33 percent also report prioritizing their smartphone over engaging with people they care about and want to spend time with.
  3. Emotional Overdependence: 65 percent admit they “panic” when they think they have lost their smartphone, and 29 percent agree that when they are not using their phone they are “thinking about using it or planning the next time I can use it.”

The results revealed that younger generations are more likely to adopt these problematic behaviors, with 53 percent of 16-20 year olds describing their phone as a “best friend.”

The good news is that many of the respondents who admit to these problematic behaviors still recognize the importance of developing a healthy, balanced relationship with their smartphone. Approximately 60 percent of respondents agree that they want to get the most out of their phone when they are on it and the most out of life when they are not, and about 60 percent also say it’s important to have a life separate from their phones.

“For the majority of smartphone users, their problematic behaviors are mindless responses and bad habits that they need help in overcoming,” said Etcoff in the press release. “Behavioral nudges, environmental control, and mindfulness will all help, as will the efforts of those within the smartphone industry. The broad social pattern uncovered in this survey of multiple countries highlights the need for collective understanding and action.”

To help users develop a better phone-life balance, Motorola has created an online quiz consisting of 10 simple questions to better understand your relationship with your phone. You can take the quiz at phone-lifebalance.com.

There are also apps, such as the SPACE Phone-Life Balance app, to help users become more mindful of their phone usage.

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