Emerging Technologies

Are young people addicted to their phones?

Christian Jarrett
Cognitive Neuroscientist, British Psychological Society\'s Research Digest Blog.
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There’s all sorts of alarmist chatter in the media about people becoming ever more addicted to their mobile phones, especially youngsters. The fact that many young people text while driving, even though they know it’s dangerous, is cited as one demonstration of their mobile phone addiction. It’s as if they literally can’t help themselves. They have to text back now. Or do they?

Paul Atchley and Amelia Warden took a novel approach to this question by seeing how much the opportunity of texting now changed the perceived value of a smaller cash reward now over a larger reward later. Thirty-five students answered questions like “You receive a text from a significant other. You can have $5.00 now if you choose to reply immediately, or you can have $100 in 60 minutes if you wait and reply then.” Different choices involved a shorter or longer wait (from 1 minute to 480 minutes). The students also chose between options that involved money only – less now or more later – with the decisions framed over a longer time-span (between 1 and 150 days).

Now vs. later choices like this have been used to demonstrate the impulsivity of people addicted to alcohol or drugs. They will typically favour a small hit now over a larger hit later, no matter how enticing the later offer. If drugs were paired with money in the manner that texts were paired with money in the current study, you’d expect addicts to show a massively skewed preference for smaller cash plus drug rewards now.

Atchley and Warden found that the students’ decisions for texts plus money followed the same pattern as for money only, but over a significantly shorter time-scale. For example, $100 in two weeks was valued at 25 per cent lower than $100 now; 100$ in 142 days had just 50 per cent of its immediate value. When money was combined with texts, this discounting speeded up. It took just a 10 minute wait for $100 plus text to lose 25 per cent of its value, and 5 hours to lose 50 per cent of its value. In other words, students seemed to think about the reward of texting in the same considered way they thought about money, except that the rate of decline in perceived value happened over an accelerated time scale. But crucially, the prospect of immediate reward was not overwhelming as you find with addiction. This contradicts the notion that students make decisions about texting in the way an addict makes decisions about drugs.

A second study with 61 students was similar but this time the texts were said to have come from a significant other, a friend or a casual acquaintance. The way that students valued money paired with less important texts was different from the way they made decisions about texts from significant others – the former had less immediate reward value. This is more evidence that their text-based decision making is thoughtful rather than impulsive.

The take-home message from this research is that young people aren’t addicted to their phones like an addict to a drug. However, they view texts from close relations as losing their value very quickly, which makes responding fast a priority. “Understanding this underlying motivation is important for understanding how to overcome inappropriate use of the technology,” the researchers said, “and will help us overcome dangerous practices among the next generation of drivers.”

Atchley and Warden urged caution in the interpretation of their findings, pointing out that this is the first time anyone has tried to apply the methodology of “delay discounting” to information-based rewards that are difficult to quantify. However, they didn’t acknowledge what is surely an even more important limitation in their research – the fact that the students were making hypothetical decisions. There were instances where they said they’d wait to answer their phone, but would they have done if it were for real?

Atchley, P., and Warden, A. (2012). The need of young adults to text now: Using delay discounting to assess informational choice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1 (4), 229-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.001

This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

This post is published as part of a blog series by the Human Implications of Digital Media project.

Image: Men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with smartphones. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic. 

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