New study finds that obsessive phone use and smoking addictions are very similar

Maybe it’s not just the sweet, sweet rush of notifications that drives our phone addictions?

In a new study conducted by The London School of Economics and Political Science, researchers have found that phone addictions are not actually caused by notifications, as was once believed, and are more likely caused by unconscious habit. The study found that 89% of our interactions with our phones occur out of compulsive habit, with only 11% being prompted by an alert.

“The urge of the user to interact with their phone that seems to occur in an almost automatic manner, just as a smoker would light a cigarette”, the study reports.

Phone usage
Photo: Spying Ninja

The study recorded the mobile phone usage of 37 participants (with an average age of 25) from Germany, France, and the UK. Each member was fitted with a first-person camera that tracked their daily interactions and phone usage, as can be seen below.

From this, it was found that group chats caused significant distress among participants, while the Instagram and Facebook scrolling features led to the longest interactions. A total of 1,130 phone interactions were recorded by the Science Direct-published study.

Phone usage
Photo: Science Direct

To literally everyone’s surprise, it was found that WhatsApp made up 22% of participant’s screen time, closely followed by checking their lock screen for notifications (est. 17%). Instagram and Facebook weighed in at 16% and 13%, respectively, while Emails (6%) and phone calls (1%) were the least populated.

Phone interactions were found to be at their lowest when participants were surrounded by other people, with the longest interactions being while they were at home or in transit. Many involved in the study found that they weren’t even aware of their mindless phone usage.

“I wouldn’t consider myself someone who isn’t attached to their phone much,” one participant said. “But seeing this has made me realise that I don’t even remember picking it up. I think I use it a lot more than I let myself believe.”

“I don’t remember getting my phone out. When I see that moment, I don’t remember doing that … and I’m surprised that I keep checking it,” another participant said.

The act of checking a phone has become a ubiquitous need among users, said study co-author and Chair of Social Psychology at LSE Professor Saadi Lahlou.

“This is a serious issue, especially for children, and we are running into the dark without having fully understood how these devices are changing our way of living. We must learn tricks to avoid the temptation when we want to concentrate or have good social relations. To do like the cowboys did with their gun when they entered saloons: leave it outside! Or at least shut it down.”

“Very important and urgent things are rare. Most things can wait a few hours – you are not going to miss out much anyway.”

At Edge Hill University, Dr Linda Kaye said that more research needs to be done to understand interactions and whether they relate to function or habit.

“This may help uncover a bit more about whether these behaviours are driven by specific human needs, and how these behaviours help fulfil these, or whether they are simply behaviours for their own sake,” she added.