Why we fail to understand our smartphone use

Smartphone usage is repetitive and consistent for each person.

Determining Typical Smartphone Usage
Determining Typical Smartphone Usage. Image: Lancaster University

According to a new study by the Lancaster University and the University of Lincoln, checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behavior. They found that people underestimate time spent on their smartphones. Their behavior is remarkably consistent, thus enabling a more rigorous approach to the study of smartphone behaviors.

Scientists examined smartphone usage based on what people do rather than what they can remember. They analyzed use more than 13 days utilizing a straightforward cell phone application which time-stamped when utilization started and finished.

Relying on data, they quantified the number of total hours usage and the number of checks for each day, with a check defined as any usage lasting less than 15 seconds. For example, the researchers found that if you check your phone 80 times today, you are likely to repeat this behavior every day.

They found that:

  • Smartphone usage is repetitive and consistent for each person
  • Future phone checking frequency can be predicted with very little data
  • A standard survey was unable to predict these behaviors

Dr. Tom Wilcockson from Lancaster University said: “Multiple checks could indicate an absent-minded use of mobile phones, which is habitual and unconscious.”

Most smartphone usage has so far been assessed using self-report tools including surveys and questionnaires, which Dr. David Ellis said have previously been shown to be unreliable.

Heather Shaw from the University of Lincoln added: “This may be because smartphone use is automatic and difficult for people to remember.”

Dr. Ellis said: “To fully understand the effect of screen time on health and well-being, we probably need to consider measures of smartphone behavior as well as self-report.”

The UK Government is currently conducting an inquiry around the impact of screen time and social media on young people.

The paper published online can be read here.