12/09/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

How Smartphones Behave Like Children

A couple decades ago, Stanford professors Clifford Nass and Byron Reese made a startling discovery: we unconsciously treat computers like people. We know that computers don't have personalities or feelings, of course, but our everyday interactions with computers are just enough like our interactions with people, it's easy to follow the same rules we follow when dealing with our fellow humans. For example, just as we tend to dampen our criticism of people, so too are we less likely to criticize computers "to their faces." If you evaluate a piece of software on one computer, then give feedback about it on a second computer, you'll likely to be a little more critical than you would if you give feedback to the first computer. You know computers don't have emotions, but still -- you don't want to hurt their feelings.

It seems to me that if computers are like people, then smartphones are like children. They accompany us everywhere, we give them lots of latitude to interrupt us, and we tolerate behavior from them that we wouldn't put up with from grownups.

And in some important ways, smartphones behave like kids. When they want your attention, they want it RIGHT NOW. They don't discriminate between messages that are genuinely important (a voice message from a client), and things that are trivial (a friend from high school just became mayor of the local Starbucks on Foursquare). They have little sense of social context, when it's appropriate to break into a conversation, or when they should wait. And it's always a tragedy when you do something besides pay attention to them.

Recently I got some actual kids together to make a video that illustrates the similarities.

It was a LOT of fun to make, and I think any parent who has a smartphone will understand the comparison. We all know that kids like smartphones. But in some important ways, smartphones are like kids.

But it has a serious point. Kids grow up, and we can help our smartphones grow up, too: to act less like impatient children, and more like butlers -- not calling your attention to distractions, but defending you from untimely updates, preventing unnecessary interruptions, and keeping you connected more intelligently.