Toward a Behavioral Science of Smartphone Use

You’re behind the wheel.

You’re traveling 60 mph.

Your phone vibrates.

Eyes still on the road, you reach for it.

You look at your phone-screen for 2 seconds.  

How far have you traveled without looking at the road?

More than Half of a Football Field

The distance you travel blindly—while looking at your phone for 2 seconds at 60 mph—is about 59 yards.

You don’t need to be a Behavior Scientist to know that driving blindly is dangerous. And yet, we still don’t quite know why people do it. For the likes? For fear of missing out?

Fortunately, there are Behavior Scientists on the case.

Behavioral Psychology and Cell Phone Use

Multiple Behavior Scientists—in a special section on the topic—have taken to the laboratory to understand our cellular obsession. In the case of texting while driving, our behavior follows the law of demand. When fines for texting while driving go up, the likelihood of our texting while driving goes down. A $10 fine may not deter you, but a $100 fine just might.

It’s not just fines that influence the likelihood of our texting while driving though. Imagine you receive the message “text me asap” from a significant other or best friend. You see it, flickering there before you, but you are 60 minutes from your destination. Do you wait to reply? What if you get that same message, but you are 15 minutes from your destination. Do you wait to reply then?

As it turns out, participants in the 60-minute condition were more likely to reply while driving than participants in the 15-minute condition.

Time and money make a difference, but can’t we just control ourselves?

Just Can’t Put It Down, Right?

I’ve put limits on my “Screen Time,” but the damned thing still beckons. Badges and banners galore. But even without them, I can’t help but have a look—even while crossing the street!

I’m not alone in this, and it may say something about my impulsivity. Researchers are starting to consider smartphone use a form of addictive behavior. That is, especially when it interferes with our daily functioning and is dangerous. Like, for example, how there were 1,506 pedestrian injuries in 2010. That’s 344 more injuries than there were for drivers in the same year.

In the first study of its kind, researchers have detected a correlation between using a smartphone while walking and impulsivity. This means that your want for things now—instead of waiting for them later—is predictive of whether you will use your smartphone while walking. The immediate reward now, even while walking, is hard to resist.

The same thing goes for students in a college classroom. The more students texted in the classroom, the more likely they were to choose immediate rewards now. “Sure I’d like $1,000 in a month, but I’ll just take that $500 NOW.” That’s a discount, and it’s how Behavior Scientists measure impulsivity.

An “Always-On” Habit

In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that the majority of smartphone users keep their phones on them and on.

In 2021, Pew also reported that 31% of Americans are almost constantly online.

The ubiquity of smartphones, in conjunction with a global pandemic, has many of us spending our time on a screen. Always-on scroll, always-on swipe, always-on call. It’s a danger while driving and walking and has a negative impact on student learning outcomes.

Again, though, Behavior Scientists are on the case. They are investigating problematic internet use while looking for ways to treat it. Smartphones are built for an “always-on” lifestyle, but are we?

So far, the only place where we can’t bring our phones—at least for now—is in the water for a swim.

Will you take the dive this summer?