Many studies concluding that people are “addicted” to their smartphones are flawed for a basic but unavoidably important reason, suggests a new research analysis. And ironically our phones are compiling clues pointing to this reason all the time.
Researchers reviewed ten “addiction surveys” that claim to measure how much people use their smartphones and other immersive gadgets like tablets. Each of these surveys, such as the Smartphone Addiction Scale, rely on people to self-report how much they think they use their phones. The results of those surveys are typically alarming and we hear about them everywhere (usually on our phones).
Up until recently, however, there hasn’t been much interest in comparing the results of those surveys with actual data of our phone usage that’s being recorded on the phones, with tools like Apple Screen Time, that can be set up to track how much we use our phones hourly, daily, weekly, etc.
So the researchers did exactly that. They compared self-reports from the big addiction surveys with data from Apple Screen Time, focusing especially on how many minutes people used their phones, how often they picked up the phone, and how many notifications they received.
The results revealed that the data just doesn’t line up. At best, there’s a “weak relationship” between how much people think they use their phones and how much they actually do, according to the study.
“The majority of these self-report smartphone assessments perform poorly when attempting to predict real-world behavior,” said study co-author Brittany Davidson from the University of Bath. “We need to revisit and improve these measurements moving forward.”
Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we’re all just A-Okay when it comes to how much we use our phones. We can set up Screen Time or similar apps and run our own analysis on our phone habits, and those results will speak for themselves, good, bad or otherwise (that data may not be perfect, but it’s at least closer to objective than our subjective hunches). We also have compelling reasons to believe that smartphone apps are designed with keeping us solidly hooked in mind, which is a much bigger discussion. And the perils of smartphone distraction, like texting while driving, are painfully well-evidenced.
What these results do point to, however, is that the scales used to draw conclusions about “smartphone addiction” probably haven’t been painting an accurate picture.
“Scales that focus on the notion of technology ‘addiction’ performed very poorly and were unable to classify people into different groups (e.g, high vs low use) based on their behavior,” said the study’s first author, David Ellis from Lancaster University in the UK.
The researchers wrote that they found evidence in the data to suggest that framing “technology use as habitual rather than ‘addictive’ correlate more favorably with subsequent behavior.” In other words, the argument from recorded data, not self-reported, leans in favor of a “habit” conclusion rather than an “addiction” conclusion. And that makes sense, since the notion of smartphone addiction has never been very well defined.
In any case, if we’re going to devise strategies with any hope of counterbalancing the distraction deluge, we need data that more accurately tells us what’s really going on. Research relying on self-reported smartphone usage is, it appears, not the best source for that data. As this analysis suggests, it’s time to revisit the problem.
The study will be published in the journal International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.