We’ve all had that moment where we’ve imagined that our mobile phone has rung, or buzzed in our pockets, but when we pull it out to look there are no new calls or messages. Now a new study by Richard Balding of the University of Worcester has shown that we’re not alone, reports The Telegraph.
Over 100 volunteers, including students and professionals from a variety of business sectors, filled in questionnaires and underwent psychometric stress tests. The results showed that the more stress people experienced, the more often they checked their phones. Those under extreme stress imagined phantom vibrations even when no messages had been received.
Although most people got smartphones so that they could keep on top of work, the benefits were soon outweighed by greater pressure to stay connected all the time. Although most users reported that they “believed using a smart phone made their lives easier,” the study found a correlation between the number of times users checked their phone and how stressed they felt.
This could be due, the authors say, to a cycle in which checking their phone increases stress levels which, in turn, creates a compulsion to check more often. What is important is not whether the phone is used for personal or work, but how often the phone is checked. Said Balding:
“Smart phone use is increasing at a rapid rate and we are likely to see an associated increase in stress from social networking.
"Organisations will not flourish if their employees are stressed, irrespective of the source of stress, so it is in their interest to encourage their employees to switch their phones off; cut the number of work emails sent out of hours, and reduce people’s temptation to check their devices.”
The results should come as no surprise to anyone who uses email, where similar problems exist. Increasingly, companies are moving to reduce email, restricting the ability to send or receive email out of office hours, or banning email completely.
The reasons why we struggle with a compulsion to check our phones or inboxes has been well understood for some time, even if not widely known. As I wrote in 2008:
Dr Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the book Mind Hacks, believes that the same fundamental learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work in email users. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule'," he says, "which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits. This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward." This is enough to make it difficult for us to resist checking email, even when we've only just looked.
What Balding has confirmed is that the checking behaviours that were once restricted to our computers have now spread to our phones.
So how can we deal with this compulsion to check our messages every few minutes? Here are a few tips:
- Turn off alerts. Find your push notifications and alerts settings for each app and turn them off.
- Get into the habit of checking your phone only in certain situations or at certain times, e.g. on your commute or whilst making yourself a coffee. Don’t let yourself check it non-stop throughout the day.
- Set your phone to silent, with no vibration, during periods that you want to focus on other things. If your phone doesn’t have a suitable setting, turn on flight mode and then set an alarm to remind you to turn it back again.
- When out with friends, use the phone stack method to curtail everyone’s over-zealous checking: Everyone puts their phone face down in the centre of table during dinner and the first person to check their phone pays for everyone’s meal. Just don’t forget to pick your phone up when you leave!
- Turn it off. This might sound impossible, but you can actually turn phones off overnight, whilst in meetings or at the cinema. Strangely, the world doesn’t actually end when your mobile is off.