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Even a beautiful Seattle view can’t distract from a check of the smartphone. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Heads up, smartphone addicts. New research from the University of Washington provides some insight into what triggers us to partake in the compulsive checking of mobile devices, as well as what makes us stop and look back up at the world.

We’re all guilty of the practice of losing ourselves in an app or two, checking out to check in with whatever smartphone shiny light manages to steal our attention. Researchers at the UW, through in-depth interviews with users across age groups, discovered common situations that lead to phone use, and common situations that snap us out of it.

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The findings were presented earlier this month at the 2019 ACM CHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow, Scotland, and reported on recently by UW News.

“For a couple of years I’ve been looking at people’s experiences with smartphones and listening to them talk about their frustration with the way they engage with their phones,” said study co-author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the UW’s Information School. “But on the flip side, when we ask people what they find meaningful about their phone use, nobody says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Everyone can point to experiences with their phone that have personal and persistent meaning.”

Hiniker added that she finds that result personally motivating, because the solution is not to just ditch the decade-old technology, which provides “enormous value,” but rather to better understand how to “support that value without bringing along all the baggage.”

Everybody’s doing it. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The UW team interviewed three groups of smartphone users: high school students, college students and adults who have graduated from college. The 39 subjects were smartphone users in the Seattle area between the ages of 14 and 64.

In general, researchers found interviewees had four common triggers for starting to compulsively use their phones:

  • During unoccupied moments, like waiting for a friend to show up.
  • Before or during tedious and repetitive tasks.
  • When in socially awkward situations.
  • When they anticipated getting a message or notification.

The group also had common triggers that ended their compulsive phone use:

  • Competing demands from the real world, like meeting up with a friend or needing to drive somewhere.
  • Realizing they had been on their phone for a half an hour.
  • Coming across content they’d already seen.

Researchers, while noting that teens and adults may not use their phones in the same way, were surprised nonetheless that both groups pointed to “dead moments” in their daily lives where they were triggered to pull out phones. It’s a “compulsive itch,” Hiniker said, that plays out the same for everyone.

For more on what UW researchers learned about how subjects think they can use phones less, or at least turn to them for more meaningful experiences, read the full story here.

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