Addicted to Our Smart Phones

Posted: 18th June 2012

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Ergonomics and Human Factors 2012 conference in Blackpool to deliver a plenary lecture, but coming from a Human Factors background I also took an opportunity to learn some of the latest developments across the sector. Of all the things I picked up during those couple of days, none struck me more than a section of presentation given by Professor Patrick Jordan, a Design, Marketing and Brand Strategist.

We often joke about people being "addicted" to their smart phones and I certainly think I am, but we use the term "addicted" rather loosely. We don't really think a person has an addiction, it's usually just a throw-away comment between friends, a humorous jibe, when one of us seems to be using our phone too much. But is it?

Do you recall the Blackberry blackout last year, when the Blackberry phone, internet and messaging services were unavailable for 3 days across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Do you remember the "Blackberry Crumble" headlines? For many of us, it was just a news item, but for Blackberry customers it was a huge inconvenience and a throwback to a time when emails couldn't be checked, messages sent and the internet browsed any and every minute we wished. Professor Jordan referred to the impact of those three days of Blackberry blackout on the incidences of road traffic deaths in the Unit Arab Emirates, where not only do they have some of the highest rates of road traffic accidents in the world but also where Blackberry has an unusually high 44% of the smart phone market.

For the three days of service outage, their accident statistics plummeted; there we're 20% fewer accidents reported in Dubai and a huge 40% fewer accidents in Abu Dhabi. This data has been put down to drivers not using their Blackberry's while driving during the blackout, which provides a stark insight into the level of danger posed from the distraction caused by using mobile devices while driving. You can read more about it here >>

So knowing that using mobile phones while driving is dangerous, why do so many people still do it? One of the main reasons is that it is a skill-based scenario. The campaigns tell us that the danger is down to a lack of ability to drive skillfully whist using a mobile device. We perceive ourselves individually to be skilled enough to operate in this way, despite the statistics and the outcomes of studies. In a 1981 study 93% of polled drivers in the USA said they belived they had better than average (50%) driving skill, which highlights this scenario beautifully. We also become increasingly immune to the threat because if we have driven and used a mobile device many times in the past, without incident, it reinforces to us that we will be ok.

But this still doesn't answer our initial question. Why do we still have this desire to check our phones all the time? You might think it would be easy to just put our phones in our bags for the duration of a journey and forget about it. But spot any person out and about with more than 30 seconds spare on their hands and you will likely see them on a smart phone, checking their emails, twitter, Facebook, the news, weather, or playing a couple of rounds of a game they have ongoing. What makes us feel so compelled to turn to our smart devices constantly?

The answer is that we are indeed genuinely becoming addicted to our technology. Professr Jordan explained that emails for example, offer us RANDOM REWARDS. We get a little endorphin boost, a real chemical boost every time our inbox makes that cute little noise that says an email has arrived, or when the little red light on the Blackberry starts to flash to say an email is waiting, the "Somebody sent me a letter" moment. It makes us feel good. If all our emails arrived at precisely 10am every morning, a bit like the post where I live, then we would anticipate this time of day only. When I was a teenager, hand written letters were in, and you got such a buzz from receiving one, but if all the postie left you was a couple of bills for your parents you just got on with your day.

Even in the interest of safety no mobile phone manufacturer would be brave enough to allow us to only receive our emails in one burst each day because they would simply drive customers to their competitors still offering email at any time. But imagine if we did that, only receive email once per day; how much more productive would we be? How much calmer? How much more able to switch off at the end of the day? How much safer on the roads? I can already hear you ask "But what about the really important emails that would arrive during the day and that I would just need to respond to immediately?"

If we know that the arrival of an email makes us feel good and that they can arrive at any time, we feel compelled to keep checking to see if there are any waiting for us. This is not just limited to email; people report a similar mood boost from receiving phone calls from their friends, having an @mention or message on twitter or a 'like' on Facebook. You may wonder why people feel compelled to divulge so much personal information on Facebook. Pictures of weddings, engagement announcements, even images of ultrasound scans of unborn babies. These are exactly the kind of divulgences which evoke a large number of 'likes' and comments from friends - a sure feel-good boost. It's a form of boosting one's self confidence.

Without a sincere amount of personal discipline and effort on our part, this might be an addiction we can't crack, but as ever, I listen to things like this with interest... Where is the health improvement analogy? What can we learn from this information for health services?

In summary, the addiction is fuelled by random sources of communication that make us feel good about ourselves, and boost our self esteem. It's no surprise that we feel positively about the things that make us feel good. So how can you offer a random feel-good boost to the people you most want to engage with?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

"" If you work with your clients directly, or in a one-to-one format, take the time to offer individual praise in a way that is completely unanticipated. Tell your clients what you really like about them, such as their determination, or what they have been doing brilliantly. Acknowledge when they have successes, no matter how big or small.
"" If you offer a text service to communicate with clients, such as a reminder system for appointments, make it personal. Start with their name, say "hi". Make it sound friendly. There's nothing worse than hearing the text message sound and finding a dry, impersonal "organisational" message sitting there.
"" The same as above but for emails.
"" If you have a Twitter account, don't just broadcast, as many organisations do, but also reply to people. Ask them what they think. Have conversations with them. They will enjoy the @ conversation and will feel more connected to you and more interested in your tweets and content in the future.
"" If you are on facebook, same as the above. Use the space for dialogue and not just for promoting a string of "up and coming events" and links.


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