Phones Aren't Addictive, But Social Interaction Is

We are not "addicted" to mobile phones but to the social interaction they provide, according to the first-of-its-kind study.

The growing number of mobile phone users worldwide raises concerns about problematic smartphone use, defined as the inability to control the time spent on mobile devices, which negatively impacts daily life.

In 2018, Professor Samuel P.L. Veissière, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, proposed a theory suggesting that we are addicted to social interaction provided by smartphones rather than the devices themselves.

A new study by researchers at Granada University (UGR), Spain, published in the scientific journal Psicothema, is this theory's first experimental scientific evidence.

The experiment included 86 undergraduate students who were divided into two groups.

Each participant in the social expectation group was instructed to send a message via WhatsApp to their most active contacts saying they would participate in an exciting task in a virtual reality universe. Meanwhile, the control group was not asked to send the message to their contacts.

Then, both groups were asked to switch off their notifications and leave their mobile phones face down on the table while they engaged in a virtual reality activity. When the task was over, the participants were left idle and unable to use their phones. After this period of doing nothing, the participants were allowed to return to using WhatsApp.

The impact of social expectancy on emotional arousal was measured with skin conductance response (SCR). The electrodermal activity of the skin was used as an indicator of the activity of our autonomic nervous system, i.e., a kind of physiological measure of anxiety.

Researchers observed that the social expectation group was more tense throughout the experiment.

"We also found that this group became more anxious when they were asked to stop using their mobile phones. Moreover, when they were allowed to use their phones again, this group experienced a much higher level of emotional arousal," Jorge López Puga, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Do I have a smartphone addiction?

An average American spends four hours and 25 minutes on their smartphone daily. However, the problematic phone use is a global phenomenon.

According to a 2023 study that included participants across 195 countries, the highest problematic use scores were found in Southeast Asia, while the lowest was in Europe.

Women were consistently more likely to engage in problematic smartphone use than men. Researchers think it is because women use their phones more for social reasons, such as communication with friends and family via social media. This kind of use is also related to social validation, for example, via "likes" on social media.

Problematic smartphone use has been linked to both physical and mental health issues, such as neck and back pain, eye strain, depression, mood disorders, and poor sleep.

Behaviors indicating that one may have a smartphone addiction are the following:

  • Spending a lot of time checking apps or browsing the internet on your smartphone.
  • The feeling of anxiety or restlessness when you cannot access your phone.
  • The use of a smartphone interferes with your productivity at work or home.
  • Using a smartphone in dangerous situations, such as when driving or crossing the street.
  • Struggling to wait to check your phone when you receive a notification.
  • Feeling that the phone buzzes when it actually doesn't.

The authors of the new study say that knowledge of how and why we use smartphones can better explain certain psychological problems. At the same time, it is essential for both mental and physical health to take a break from the screen.

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