Why Checking Your Smart Phone Can Become Compulsive

Are you always checking your phone while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, or stopped at a traffic light?

Woman Checking Cell Phone© Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Thinkstock
The tiny jolt of positive reinforcement we get receiving new messages perpetuates the act of checking-in on our phones.
Are you always checking your phone while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, or stopped at a traffic light? Do you dig around for it in your purse and place it on the restaurant table as soon as you’re seated? Well, you may be addicted to your phone. According to a new study smart phone users can develop what they call “checking habits,” and like most habits it’s not so easy to break.

The research, published in the Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, reported that habitual checking for messages lasts less than 30 seconds and is usually done at intervals of ten minutes. Most folks with this habit end up compulsively checking their device an average of 34 times a day, and often don’t even realize they’re doing it.

What’s the draw? Neuroscientists say each time we get an email or text message our brains receive a tiny jolt of positive reinforcement. It feels so good we want to do it again – and again. Once our brains get used to this feedback, checking the phone becomes automatic, like snacking during the movies.

But as is the case with many habits, there are drawbacks. When we habitually check our phones we’re avoiding interacting with people or getting our chores done. And if we’re not paying full attention while we’re in our car there can be serious or even fatal consequences.

How to Break the Habit

– Before checking, ask yourself whether it’s absolutely necessary. This way it becomes a conscious, not reflexive, decision.

– Remind yourself that it’s rude and annoying if you’re around other people.

– Create times during the day when you forbid yourself to check. If it makes you too uneasy, begin with ten minutes at a time and then extend by five minute intervals.

– Make certain places phone-free, such as your bedroom, the bathroom, in restaurants, or the doctor’s waiting room.

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