Are We All Becoming Pavlov’s Smartphone Dogs?

June 14, 2016

Scenario 1: Buzz goes your smartphone. With nary a moment’s hesitation you grab it out of your pocket and look for the alert. Was it an email? A Facebook notification? A text? Or just a phantom vibration?

Scenario 2: You just looked at your phone a few minutes ago but now you are standing in line at the market and grab it to check for messages even though your phone did not beep, vibrate, flash or turn somersaults.

Scenario 3: You posted on Facebook a few minutes ago and even though you have not yet been notified of any responses, likes or whatever, you tap the icon and scroll through the latest posts. You see that your high school best friend just posted a photo of her trip to Maui and you smile when you are the first to “like” it.

Scenario 4: You are at dinner with a group of friends and you have all agreed to put all phones on silent and away. After the appetizer you get up to go to the restroom (even though you really don’t need to go) and immediately upon opening the door you grab your phone and check the ball scores or your email or whatever. Looking around you notice that every other person in the restroom is doing the same.

I do a lot of people watching and I have noticed that we are now spending more time with our faces staring at our phone than we spend with our faces looking around the world or looking directly at another person.

In a recent study colleagues and I asked 216 undergraduate students to use an app called Instant Quantified Self that tallied the number of times the student unlocked his/her phone during the day and how many minutes it remained unlocked.

Strikingly, the average student (and our students are typically older, averaging about 25 years old instead of the usual 20-year-old college student) unlocked his/her phone roughly 60 times a day for about 4 minutes each time. In all, the phone was in use 4 hours! And this does not count time spent on a laptop, tablet, or any other device.

What are they doing on their phones? Mostly accessing social connections including text messaging, reading or posting on social media, dealing with email or any app that involves connecting with another human being.

Pavlov paired food with a bell; we seem to be pairing our human connection with our phone. We may not salivate but our brain is certainly responding to those internal and external alerts.

I have been studying the “psychology of technology” since 1984 and I want to tell you that we did not become Pavlov’s dogs overnight. Over the past decade or two, as smartphones went from business tools to ubiquity, we began spending more and more time with our face pointed down at our tiny screen rather than being oriented out to the world. You see it everywhere.

A policeman directs traffic and periodically glances at his phone. A gardener mows with his phone resting on the mower frame. A bank teller steals a glance at his phone as one patron leaves and the other is walking up to his station. Four young adults at a restaurant mean four (or more) phones on the table and constant tapping. A family dinner table is similarly littered with devices.

But this did not happen as soon as smartphones entered our world. Slowly we started using our phones more often and in more locations and now, in 2016, our phone has become our most prized possession. Most people use it all day and sleep with it beside them all night. More than a few inches rarely separate us from our smartphone.

The other day two things happened to me that made me hyperaware of what has happened and is happening to me personally as I realize that I am too often facing the world face down.

First, I was walking across campus and reading about something on my iPhone. Decided to take a shortcut across the lawn and BAM! Stepped in a puddle that submerged my shoes and the bottom few inches of my jeans in a combination of water, dirt and fertilizer. The rest of the day I smelled like a newly planted garden (and not in a good way). The second event involved me talking on the phone in the bedroom of my house and then taking my phone and walking to the office to talk to my fiancé.

We chatted and then I realized that my phone was neither in my pocket nor in my hand. No problem, I must have left it in the bedroom. Nope. I looked all around the bed and the room and then had my fiancé dial my number, which did not ring and eventually went to voice mail. At this point I realized that my palms were sweating, my heart was beating a bit faster, and I was getting nervous.

After 15 frantic minutes I discovered, by accident, that the phone had somehow fallen out of my pocket and lodged itself under the bed skirt, out of sight, and that it didn’t ring since I had never taken it off the nighttime silent setting.

I am sorry to tell you but these are all signs of an anxiety disorder. In study after study in our lab we have examined the impact of anxiety as an explanation of why you might choose to use your smartphone in a certain situation and how it disrupts your plans.

Some of this is what is called “generalized anxiety,” and we found that if we take your phone away and you are one of those people who use your phone much of the day, you will get anxious within 10 minutes and your anxiety will continue to climb until we give you back your phone.

We also study a particular type of anxiety that is connected to feeling a need to constantly check in and feeling anxious if you can’t check in as often as you like. It is similar to the concept known as FOMO—fear of missing out—but it is not really a fear.

Physiologically it looks more like a heightened level of “technological anxiety” that will continue to rise until you check in with whatever is making you feel this way, and then it will abate only to start to rise again and again and again.

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