Almost instinctively, the teen reaches into her pocket and quickly makes some swipes on her smartphone. The teen repeats the process several more times during her conversation with her friends. This would seem a little bit odd except her friends are engaged in the same habits, checking their smartphones without even seeming to be aware that they are doing it.
This phenomenon is not unique to teens as adults have also gotten into the habit of automatically checking their smartphones. It is a wonder to think that in a few short years a product has gone from a novelty to something so deeply ingrained into our lives as to become a habit.
Once the habit of checking and using a smartphone is established, it can be difficult to break. There have been several college professors who have challenged their students to go without their smartphones for 24 hours, most students cannot make it.
Delving a bit deeper into the smartphone habit is finding out what caused the habit to start in the first place. A recent study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior identified several factors that set up people to habitually use their smartphones.
It all starts with how a smartphone is used. Most people, particularly women, use their smartphones for social purposes. This means reading texts and e-mails or checking on sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Every time people check in, it serves as a little reward that someone out there has been thinking them. This makes it more likely people will check in again, as it feels nice to have that little reward waiting for them.
The need for that social reward gets stronger when people are experiencing social stress. One example would be two friends who are arguing with one another and need to feel like others are supporting their point of view. The need to feel supported would cause people to access their smartphones more often to get confirmation of that support. Eventually, the checking for support and need for little rewards morphs into the habit of frequently accessing their smartphones.
Teens are particularly susceptible to developing a smartphone checking habit. Those years are rife with social stress at the very time when teens are trying to figure out who they are and where they are going in life. Of course they are going to check their smartphones frequently. They need whatever rewards and support they can get during this time.
The danger to teens is not in their habit of checking their smartphones. Rather, the danger lies in the habit becoming an addiction. The difference being that an addiction starts to take a toll on the teen’s day to day functioning. An example would be losing friends because of the teen preferring to be on her smartphone or losing a job because she was checking her smartphone too often.
When smartphone addiction occurs, parents need to intervene. Fortunately, smartphone addiction is relatively rare, even if parents think all teens are addicted to their smartphones. More likely is that teens have made their smartphone use a habit.
The first step in changing a habit is becoming aware it exists. If parents are concerned about their teens’ smartphone usage, they should start a conversation with them about how much the teens’ use their smartphones. This might get teens to start thinking about their use and how much might be too much.
This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on October 9, 2015