• Sophie H. Janicke, Ph.D.

Self-Regulation And Smart Phone Use: How "smart" is our smartphone really?

Today, 64% of Americans and 85% of the 18-29 year olds, own a smartphone. On a given day, some data suggests, the average American spends 5h on their smartphone. Would you have guessed that number? No? Yea, most people don’t. A study with a student sample (Mean age 22.5), showed that students underestimate their smartphone usage amount of about half. They also said they check their phone on average 5 times an hour with up to 85 times a day. A series of smartphone usage polls conducted by Gallup supports these numbers, with about 50% of all smart phone users indicating that they check their phones several times an hour or more. Additionally, 81% of people said they have their phone very close to them throughout their day and 63% even when they are sleeping.

Not only does the majority of Americans own a smartphone they also spend around a quarter of their day on them.

When I have students track their phone usage I hear similar numbers and behaviors. More specifically, a lot of time student are surprised about the amount they use their phones. I see this surprise is an indicator of how much smartphone usage has become a habit. We are not aware of it and engage in it on autopilot. A habit, which, according to some researchers, may lead to a decrease in attention span, productivity, lower test scores and anxiety, sleep disturbance, deep focus, and a loss of the ability to be in solitude (which in turn, is necessary for self-reflection and personal growth).

Smartphone addiction, even though not classified under the DSM as a mental disorder (yet), is a real thing. When I discuss the research findings of smartphone addiction in my classes, students are surprised and excited at the same time to learn about it. When I ask them a week after the discussion if they changed any of their habits, for example, not using their phones before bedtime or while studying, I only get a guilty look.

Why is it so hard to change the habit of how we use our smart phones in our daily lives?

Even when my students report how well they slept and how much homework they got done when they had to “unplug” from their phones for their 24 hour unplugging assignment for class, they still go right back to their habits. Are we just creatures that love to feel miserable? Of course, this is a complex issue, with personality variables, age, and being wired for reward and the release of dopamine all impacting the way we interact with our phones. However, one component seems to be central for our “addictive” behaviors: And that is self-regulation.

A consistent body of research now shows that excessive media use in general, and smartphone use in particular, is caused by a lack of self-control (i.e., Gámez-Guadix, Calvete, Orue, & Las Hayas, 2015; Greenwood & Long, 2009; Wei, Wang, & Klausner, 2012; Khang, Kim, & Kim, 2013). Self-control is a limited cognitive resource that is drained by all forms of actions.

For example, I execute self-control when I eat dinner with friends and watch out that I am not saying anything stupid or use to many swear words (something I am working on constantly). I execute self-control when I think something about a colleague but say something else because I know it is smarter to do so. I execute self-control when I pick the salad instead of the mac-and-cheese and I even execute self-control when I do the 10th pushup, even though my body is telling me I cannot do a single one more.

My self-control, also often referred to as willpower (check out McGonigal's google talk), is engaged in anything that involves a volitional action, so basically anything non-automatic. So, when my obsessive smart-phone checking during the day has become a habit, and I don’t even realize anymore that I just picked up my phone 5 times in the last 10 minutes, just because I am “bored,” or do not know how to be in solitude, or how to interact with anybody around me. I have to execute quite some effort and willpower to 1. become aware of my automatic action and then 2. decide not to engage in it.

After a day at work, our self-control resources are depleted and it is much harder to resist temptations or habits. This is why we can resist the cookie in the morning but not at night.

It now makes sense that my students have such a hard time to resist checking their phone while studying, which usually happens later in the day and at night. Now, whereas there are things we can all do to “train” our willpower, I feel like the responsibility should not be all in our hands.

How about making that smartphone actually smart? After all, it got us into this misery of providing us with tiny reward chocolate pieces in form of dopamine every time we hear a notification and see a like on our Instagram post, in the first place. How about technology helping our willpower and self-control? Can our smart phone become so “smart” that is tracks our self-control status and helps us to become aware of our actions in situations where our self-control is depleted?

I envision something like this: When I have to finish a project and reserve some hours to do so but I cannot get myself to put away my phone, then, when I want to pick it up, the nice voice of “Siri” asks me: "Are you done with your task? What can I help you with?" Something that reminds me: oh yea, that's right, I need to finish my task. I can check FB later. Basically, something that puts the breaks on and puts a mirror in front of me, reminding me of my task at hand.

Or, another situation: buying stuff from Amazon after 10pm at night. Usually, not the best idea. That book that sounded oh so “life changing,” that kitchen-aid that surely would be like a maid to me, or that car cleaner that surely would make my car look like new, usually ends up in the storage closet. So, how about my computer talks to me and asks: "How will this purchase add value to your life? How much disposable money do you have left for this purchase?"

Of course, we can just use a blocking app or timing app that prohibits us from checking certain sites or apps during specific times (i.e., https://selfcontrolapp.com/), but again this is an all or nothing approach. I think we should shoot for a middle approach and demand more from our technologies. Tristan Harris, an ex-googler shares a similar vision than me at his website: Time Well Spent.

Let smartphones be actually smart and assist us with self-control and meaning making.

Let’s put some pressure onto technologies and away from our shoulders. Let technology assist us make our lives better, healthier, and happier! After all, isn’t that the “goal” of technology to begin with? Make life easier? I’d say so and I demand it! Boom!


Gámez-Guadix, M., Calvete, E., Orue, I., & Las Hayas, C. (2015). Problematic Internet use and problematic alcohol use from the cognitive-behavioral model: A longitudinal study among adolescents. Addictive Behaviors, 40, 109–14. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.09.009

Greenwood, D. N., & Long, C. R. (2009). Mood specific media use and emotion regulation: Patterns and individual differences. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(5-6), 616– 621. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2009.01.002

Khang, H., Kim, J. K., & Kim, Y. (2013). Self-traits and motivations as antecedents of digital media flow and addiction: The Internet, mobile phones, and video games. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 2416–2424. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.05.027

Wei, F.-Y. F., Wang, Y. K., & Klausner, M. (2012). Rethinking college students’ self-regulation and sustained attention: Does text messaging during class influence cognitive learning? Communication Education, 61(3), 185–204. http://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2012.672755

#smartphone #selfregulation #addiction #habit #happiness

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