Researchers have decoded four common triggers for the compulsive use of smartphones which, if addressed, can help shun the screen addiction.
The four triggers for habitual smartphone use are: During unoccupied moments, like waiting for a friend to show up; before or during tedious and repetitive tasks; when in socially awkward situations and when people anticipate getting a message or notification.
"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," said study co-author Alexis Hiniker, 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".
Researchers conducted in-depth interviews to learn why people compulsively check our phones.
They found a series of triggers, common across age groups, that start and end habitual smartphone use. The team also explored user-generated solutions to end undesirable phone use.
"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?" asked Hiniker.
The study group also had common triggers that ended their compulsive phone use.
These were: Competing demands from the real world, like meeting up with a friend or needing to drive somewhere; realizing they had been on their phone for half an hour and coming across content they'd already seen.
"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 noted.
To the team, the finding pointed to a more nuanced idea behind people's relationships to 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 said. "But that's not really the case".
Instead, the researchers saw that participants found meaning in a diverse set of experiences, particularly when apps let them connect to the real world.
When it comes to designing the next wave of smartphones, Hiniker recommends that designers shift away from system-wide lockout mechanisms.Instead, apps should let users be in control of their own engagement and people should decide whether an app is worth their time.