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Screen time boosts compulsiveness for mobile users

People who spend a lot of time on smartphones are more likely to exhibit behaviour compulsions

Joanna England
|Nov 24|magazine7 min read

Smartphone addicts are less resilient to the lure of instant gratification, says a new report from a leading German university.

The study, which was conducted by the Freie Universität in Berlin, reported behaviour similarities between excessive smartphone use and “maladaptive” activities like compulsive gambling and drug and alcohol abuse.

The findings, which were published last week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, came from a sample group of 101 volunteers who agreed to have their device activity monitored for seven to 10 days. 

The volunteers completed several tasks and questionnaires that assessed their compulsion levels associated with smartphone use and feelings of reward.

The results suggest that those who indulge in excessive screen time, typically involving social media and gaming, are more likely to suffer from the personality factors that lead to compulsive behaviour. They are less likely to resist the lure of instant gratification in favour of larger, delayed rewards.

Volunteers in the sample group who showed greater self-control spent less time on their phones. However, consideration of future consequences showed no correlation with their screen time. 

Smartphone consequences

The study’s lead researchers, Tim Schulz van Endert and Peter Mohr released a statement on the data, saying, “Our findings provide further evidence that smartphone use and impulsive decision-making go hand in hand. People who are already aware of their impulsive decision-making may benefit from the knowledge of their increased risk of overusing smartphones.” 

They went on to say that because mobile technology is so central to people’s lives, it is essential that research is carried out to determine behaviour triggers that could be exacerbated by excessive smartphone usage.

“Given the ever-growing role smartphones play in people’s daily lives and the implied risk of overuse, it is crucial to understand individual differences which relate to smartphone usage. 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 statement said. 

At-risk users

The researchers said it was important to make users aware of behavioural traits that are increased by smartphone screen time. They said, “People who are already aware of their impulsive decision-making may benefit from the knowledge of their increased risk of overusing smartphones. These conclusions contribute to the view that smartphone use should not be underestimated but researched carefully to guide policy makers in shaping prudent use of this omnipresent technology.”

The results pinpointed two main factors that guide underlying impulsive choices. One was a person's self-control - the ability to withstand temptations to achieve specific goals. The other was the ability to imagine the potential outcomes of their behaviours and future consequences.

"We found that participants lower in self-control tended to use their smartphone more," said Schulz van Endert, who is a doctoral student at Freie Universität.

They added that further research on smartphone engagement could help inform policies to guide prudent use, adding, “Engagement with this device needs to be critically examined by researchers to guide prudent behaviour.”

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