4 Common Triggers That Make You Check Your Phone


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A new study defines a sequence of triggers that begin and end compulsive smartphone use, prevalent across age groups.

In the decade since smartphones have become omnipresent, we now have a feeling that is almost as common as the smartphones themselves: being sucked into that black hole of looking at those specific apps — you know which ones — and then a half-hour goes by before you realize it.

Researchers carried out thorough interviews to learn why we check our phones compulsively. They also looked at user-generated solutions to stop unwanted phone use.

“For a couple of years I’ve been looking at people’s experiences with smartphones and listening to them talk about their frustration with the way they engage with their phones,” says co-author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Information School.

“But on the flip side, when we ask people what they find meaningful about their phone use, nobody says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Everyone can point to experiences with their phone that have personal and persistent meaning.

“That is very motivating for me. The solution is not to get rid of this technology; it provides enormous value. So the question is: How do we support that value without bringing along all the baggage?”


What makes us check our phone so often?


Hiniker and her team surveyed two groups of smartphone users: high-school students, college students and adults graduating from college. The 39 individuals in the Seattle region were 14 to 64-year-old smartphone users.

Interviews began with background questions and a demonstration of “thinking aloud,” where participants walked through apps on the phone. Interviewers would ask more thorough questions concerning the applications participants suggested that compulsive behaviour most likely occurs.

“We were hoping to get a holistic view into the behaviours of the participants,” says first author Jonathan Tran, an undergraduate studying human-centred design and engineering.

In particular, the interviewees had four prevalent triggers for starting to use their phones compulsively:

  • During unoccupied moments, like waiting for a friend to show up
  • Before or during tedious and repetitive tasks
  • When in socially awkward situations
  • When they anticipated getting a message or notification

There were also common triggers that stopped compulsive smartphone use:

  • Competing demands from the real world, like meeting up with a friend or needing to drive somewhere
  • Realizing they had been using their phone for a half an hour
  • Coming across content, they’d already seen

It surprised the team that the triggers in all age groups were identical.

“This doesn’t mean that teens use their phones the same way adults do. But I think this compulsive itch to turn back to your phone plays out the same way across all these groups,” Hiniker says. “People talked about everything in the same terms: The high school students would say ‘Anytime I have a dead moment, if I have one minute between classes I pull out my phone.’ And the adults would say ‘Anytime I have one dead moment, if I have one minute between seeing patients at work I pull out my phone.’”

The scientists asked the respondents to figure out something they wanted to alter their conduct and to get an understanding on paper of how the phone could help them.

“Many of the participants sketched ‘lockout’ mechanisms, where the phone would essentially prevent them from using it for a certain period of time,” Tran says.

“But participants mentioned how although they feel bad about their behavior, they didn’t really feel bad enough to utilize their sketched solutions. There was some ambivalence.”


This finding points the team to a more nuanced concept of the interactions between people and their phones.

“If the phone weren’t valuable at all, then sure, the lockout mechanism would work great. We could just stop having phones, and the problem would be solved,” Hiniker says. “But that’s not really the case.”

The scientists instead saw that respondents discovered significance in a range of experiences, especially when apps allow them to relate to the real world.

One student spoke of how a meme generator helped her to communicate with her sister because they always tagged each other.

Another participant said Kindle’s app connected her to her dad, who was reading the same books.

“People describe it as an economic calculation,” Hiniker says. “Like, ‘How much time do I spend with this app and how much of that time is actually invested in something lasting that transcends this specific moment of use?’ Some experiences promote a lot of compulsive use, and that dilutes the time people spend on activities that are meaningful.”

When it comes to developing the next wave of smartphones, Hiniker proposes that developers move away from system-wide locking mechanisms. Instead, applications should allow users to regulate their own participation. And individuals should decide if the app is worth their time.

“People have a pretty good sense of what matters to them,” Hiniker says. “They can try to tailor what’s on their phone to support the things that they find meaningful.”

Source: University of Washington

Reproduced in part under the Attribution 4.0 International license from Futurity.org.


Anirudh Muley
Anirudh Muley
Anirudh is the Editor in Chief and Main Writer at Clickdotme. He does not like describing himself in the third-person and had a hard time coming up with these two sentences!

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