Monday, 3 December 2012

Are young people really addicted to their phones?

There's all sorts of alarmist chatter in the media about people becoming ever more addicted to their mobile phones, especially youngsters. The fact that many young people text while driving, even though they know it's dangerous, is cited as one demonstration of their mobile phone addiction. It's as if they literally can't help themselves. They have to text back now. Or do they?

Paul Atchley and Amelia Warden took a novel approach to this question by seeing how much the opportunity of texting now changed the perceived value of a smaller cash reward now over a larger reward later. Thirty-five students answered questions like "You receive a text from a significant other. You can have $5.00 now if you choose to reply immediately, or you can have $100 in 60 minutes if you wait and reply then." Different choices involved a shorter or longer wait (from 1 minute to 480 minutes). The students also chose between options that involved money only - less now or more later - with the decisions framed over a longer time-span (between 1 and 150 days).

Now vs. later choices like this have been used to demonstrate the impulsivity of people addicted to alcohol or drugs. They will typically favour a small hit now over a larger hit later, no matter how enticing the later offer. If drugs were paired with money in the manner that texts were paired with money in the current study, you'd expect addicts to show a massively skewed preference for smaller cash plus drug rewards now.

Atchley and Warden found that the students' decisions for texts plus money followed the same pattern as for money only, but over a significantly shorter time-scale. For example, $100 in two weeks was valued at 25 per cent lower than $100 now; 100$ in 142 days had just 50 per cent of its immediate value. When money was combined with texts, this discounting speeded up. It took just a 10 minute wait for $100 plus text to lose 25 per cent of its value, and 5 hours to lose 50 per cent of its value. In other words, students seemed to think about the reward of texting in the same considered way they thought about money, except that the rate of decline in perceived value happened over an accelerated time scale. But crucially, the prospect of immediate reward was not overwhelming as you find with addiction. This contradicts the notion that students make decisions about texting in the way an addict makes decisions about drugs.

A second study with 61 students was similar but this time the texts were said to have come from a significant other, a friend or a casual acquaintance. The way that students valued money paired with less important texts was different from the way they made decisions about texts from significant others - the former had less immediate reward value. This is more evidence that their text-based decision making is thoughtful rather than impulsive.

The take-home message from this research is that young people aren't addicted to their phones like an addict to a drug. However, they view texts from close relations as losing their value very quickly, which makes responding fast a priority. "Understanding this underlying motivation is important for understanding how to overcome inappropriate use of the technology," the researchers said, "and will help us overcome dangerous practices among the next generation of drivers."

Atchley and Warden urged caution in the interpretation of their findings, pointing out that this is the first time anyone has tried to apply the methodology of "delay discounting" to information-based rewards that are difficult to quantify. However, they didn't acknowledge what is surely an even more important limitation in their research - the fact that the students were making hypothetical decisions. There were instances where they said they'd wait to answer their phone, but would they have done if it were for real?


Atchley, P., and Warden, A. (2012). The need of young adults to text now: Using delay discounting to assess informational choice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1 (4), 229-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.001

--Further reading--
How the mere presence of a mobile phone harms face-to-face conversations.
Talking on a mobile phone, you're less likely to notice the unicycling clown.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


CiarĂ¡n Mc Mahon said...

Critical flaw in this method is that the participant has already received and read the message.

A better test of 'addiction' would be aimed at the message notification - i.e. "You have just received a text. You can have $5.00 now if you choose to read it immediately, or you can have $100 in 60 minutes if you wait and read it then."

Michael Salas said...

I agree with this study's limitations. It is a fascinating study idea, however. As a Dallas Counselor, I see that many of my clients struggle with this. I can tell when people receive a text, that some of their anxiety raises, while others could ignore it altogether. Age is likely one correlation.

Courtney T. said...

I also agree with this study. However teenagers would usually do anything that they could just to be able to text their friends or family something they wanted to tell them. I'm sure some teenagers would wait and get paid that extra $100 but on the other hand, i'm sure more would rather text back after five minutes rather than waiting that extra hour since this world is so technology based now. That's all they've grown up with.

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.