SCIENCE

You Probably Use Your Smartphone Way More Than You Think

Many young adults spend a third of their waking lives on their device.

11/02/2015 04:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2015
Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty Images
Young adults use their smartphones about twice as much as they think they do, according to new research.

How many times would you estimate that you check your iPhone every day? Thirty, 40 or 50 times? Take whatever number you came up with and double it, and then you might be getting close. 

New research conducted by British psychologists shows that young adults use their smartphones roughly twice as much as they estimate that they do. In fact, the small preliminary study found that these young adults used their phones an average of five hours a day -- that's roughly one-third of their total waking hours. 

"The fact that we use our phones twice as many times as we think we do indicates that a lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviors that we have no awareness of," Dr. Sally Andrews, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. 

A lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviors that we have no awareness of."

Dr. Richard House, a British psychologist with a research interest in the impacts of technology on human experience, agreed that there is often a significant lack of awareness around technology usage. 

"It is quite shocking that on average, approaching one third of people’s waking hours are spent using them, with phones being used on average five times an hour, every waking hour," House told The Huffington Post in an email. "This suggests that we urgently need to research into the psychodynamics of these technologies, in terms of the emotional -- and possibly psychopathological -- function they are serving in people’s lives."

For the study, the researchers asked 23 young adults to estimate how much they were using their Android smartphones during a specific two-week period, including the total amount of usage time and number of times they were checking their phones. The participants also answered questions about how their smartphone use affected their daily lives.

Meanwhile, the researchers also installed an app on each of the participants' phones that recorded how much time they actually spent using the device during the two weeks.

What did the researchers find? There was no correlation between estimated and actual smartphone use. The participants checked their phones an average of 85 times a day each, which was roughly double what they estimated.

The researchers also found that more than half of the smartphone use -- 55 percent -- consisted of short bursts of less than 30 seconds of activity, which, as Andrews suggests, may be a sort of habitual behavior for many users.

The research sheds light on how, when it comes to technology use, the self-reported data that scientists typically rely on may not be very accurate. With the growing need for data on smartphone use and how it's affecting our health and cognitive function, using apps to record usage may help scientists gather more accurate data.

"Given how much time we spend on our smartphones, it is plausible to expect that they will affect our attitudes, thoughts and behaviors," Caglar Yildirim, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Iowa State University, whose work focuses on human-computer interactions, said in an email. "These devices can have an impact on our brains. Whether or not this effect is beneficial or harmful depends on how you use your smartphone and for what you use it."

Research has shown technology use can impair attention, productivity and memory, dampen creative thinking, increase stress levels, reduce sleep quality and lead to "cognitive errors" like forgetting meetings and walking into people.

"From our data, it’s difficult to say what effects this will have on cognition, but recent research suggests that the constant availability of the smartphone limits the analytical and intuitiveness of people’s thinking and reasoning -- because everything is 'Googlable,'" Andrews said.

Of course, frequent smartphone use may not be a bad thing in and of itself. She distinguished between heavy smartphone use and problematic smartphone use -- the latter being measured based on how much the usage seems to be impairing the individual's quality of life. Any downsides must also be balanced against the many benefits of using the technology.

"Long story short, it is not either black or white," Yildirim said. "We need to focus more on the shades of gray and be cognizant of our smartphone use and how it is affecting our lives."

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