Surprise! Smartphones May Make You More Impulsive

Key Takeaways

  • People who spend more time on smartphones tend to reject bigger, delayed rewards in favor of lesser, immediate gains, a new study finds.
  • The study found that participants with less self-control tended to use their phones more.
  • Users spend much more time on their phones than they thought.

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If you stop to play a game before you finish reading this article, it may be due to smartphone use, scientists say.

People who spend more time on their phones are more likely to reject bigger, delayed rewards for smaller, more immediate gains, according to a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE. A disposition for immediate rewards, called impulsivity, has been linked to drug addiction, excessive gambling, and alcohol abuse. In the new study, researchers found that excessive smartphone use is also linked to impulsivity.

“Our study shows that there is a significant relationship between actual smartphone use and impulsive choice, i.e., on average, the longer a person uses a smartphone the more they tend to prefer smaller, immediate [rewards] over larger, delayed rewards,” Tim Schulz van Endert, a researcher at Freie Universität Berlin, and a co-author of the study, said in an email interview. “Virtually every person now owns a smartphone and uses it extensively, so it is important to study smartphone use and its potential impact on the human mind.”

More Screen Time = Less Self Control?

The need to understand how phones are affecting behavior is growing as screen use becomes more frequent, Schulz van Endert said. People around the world spent an average of 800 hours using the mobile internet last year—equivalent to 33 days without sleep or pause, according to marketing and advertising agency Zenith.

In news that will surprise few parents, the study also found that participants with less self-control tended to use their phones more. Social media use and gaming were also linked with a preference for immediate rewards, but the findings could have larger implications beyond too much screen time, Schulz van Endert said.

“Virtually every person now owns a smartphone and uses it extensively.”

“On the one hand, we collected real-life smartphone usage data, so this behavior is fully applicable outside the experimental lab,” he added. “On the other hand, impulsive choice applies in any context where people need to decide between smaller, sooner and larger, later rewards (e.g., saving money, food choice, exercising, or even climate change).”

The research was based on information gathered from Screen Time, the Apple software that tracks phone usage. Schulz van Endert and his co-author were able to see exactly how much time the 101 study participants actively used each app on their phones, and the amount of time was way more than the participants thought. About 71% of participants overestimated and 17% underestimated their screen time, the study found. 

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Similar studies also have found a relationship between smartphone use and impulsive choice. However, those studies mostly relied on self-reported smartphone usage behavior, which tends to be less accurate, Schulz van Endert said. 

“Our findings suggest that especially heavy social media users and gamers should be mindful of their tendency to be drawn to smaller, immediate rewards,” the researchers wrote in the study. “Alternatively, people who are already aware of their impulsive decision-making may benefit from the knowledge of their increased risk of overusing smartphones.”

More Phone Time, Less Work

Other studies bolster the idea that smartphones are affecting the way we use our time and make decisions. One recent survey conducted by mobile phone trade-in company Sell Cell interviewed people working from home during the coronavirus lockdown and found smartphones were a big distraction. 

“The knock-on effect of this impulse to check phones and conduct non-work-related tasks is no doubt having a huge impact on broken work patterns, poor sleep patterns, and routines, Sarah McConomy, COO of Sell Cell, said in an email interview. “Rather than sticking to normal routines and enjoying the larger rewards of a normal evening routine, less stress, and probably better productivity, the need to get this immediate reward is evident.”

Keep the results of these studies in mind before your next round of Candy Crush or TikTok deep dive. The short-term rewards may seem great, but wouldn’t your time be better spent writing the next great American novel, finishing this article, or finally starting that book you bought months ago?

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