Smartphone addiction: Why do we love them so much?

A couple of years ago I wrote “Your mobile phone could kill you” and this has been one of the most popular articles on this website. It highlighted the dangers of using a mobile phone whilst driving. Each year, thousands of people are killed in road accidents due to drivers being distracted by their mobile phone.

In 2017, 42% of US high school students who drove in the past 30 days reported sending a text or email while driving

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (

In this follow-up, I’m going to explore why many people continue to use their smartphone whilst driving – and whether we can change this behaviour.

Since my last article, the trend towards using our smartphones for communicating by text message (rather than by voice) has increased. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in the sending or reading of text messages, or accessing the internet, whilst driving. Also, the popularity of social media Apps, with their notifications, is increasing. As a human factors specialist, I’m also concerned that car manufacturers are integrating smartphone functionality into the vehicle entertainment system. Some manufacturers are even using this ability to engage with social media updates whilst driving as a selling point.

People: Can you blame them?

People use smartphones whilst driving for the same reasons that they use smartphones whilst walking, commuting, during lectures, when they should be sleeping and when having a meal with you in a restaurant.

Mobile phone whilst driving -

And, they (we) will continue to do so, because of the following:

  1. Smartphones (or rather more accurately the Apps, games or social media platforms that they run) are intentionally designed to be addictive. Just like slot machines, they deliver intermittent rewards, which are known to encourage addictive behaviours. This is based upon the work of psychologist BF Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a behaviour is to reward it, not every time, but randomly. Even the “pull down to refresh” action simulates the pulling of a slot machine lever – and that’s no coincidence. Of course, Apps are able to automatically update your content or status in real time and this swipe-to-refresh action is unnecessary, but it gives us the illusion that we’re in control.
  2. Common social media Apps are engineered to deliver ‘likes’ to you at the perfect moment to help build habits, or just when you were about to close the App, in order to keep you engaged. (Those nice people who gave you an App for free wouldn’t do that, would they?). There are technology companies who specialise in helping developers to create Apps that are ‘sticky’, by tailoring the delivery of ‘likes’ etc. to each user, based on real-time data from your device and behavioural models.
  3. Apps use colours that we’re attracted to. Notice how many social media company logos and App notifications such as ‘likes’, hearts and dots use colours at the warmer end of the spectrum.
  4. We all want to be noticed, to get recognition, and our smartphones can fulfill that need. When someone ‘likes’ or comments on your post, photograph or update, your brain gets a little reward of dopamine. And that makes your brain happy. It also makes your brain want more of those little dopamine hits.

So, what’s the solution?

If most of us are carrying attention-seeking and rewarding devices, and feel compelled to check them frequently, how do we influence people not to use them when it’s unsafe?

We could increase awareness about the dangers of using smartphones whilst driving, for example, see this short video:


However, the addictive qualities of our smartphones may be stronger than the impact of such safety messages. The statistics don’t lie. I’m sure that these videos have some influence, but they are not a complete solution and so this article is not over yet.

We could catch and punish those found to be using their mobiles whilst driving. Most countries with road safety laws have such an offence and impose financial penalties on those caught. In my State of Western Australia the penalties are as follows:

Using, touching or holding a mobile phone whilst driving = 3 demerit points and $400 fine.

Creating, sending or looking at a text message, video message, email or similar communication, whilst driving = 3 demerit points and $400 fine.

We also have a system called Double Demerits: during holiday periods and long weekends, these and other offences attract double (bonus!) points. As with other countries, once a certain number of points has been accumulated, a driver is disqualified for a certain period (depending upon the type of licence held). In the UK, the fine is about the same (£200), but attracts 6 penalty points. That’s enough points for a driving ban if the driver is within two years of passing their test – or halfway to a ban for everyone else.

However, the chances of getting caught may be slim, or the penalties may not be sufficient to act as a deterrent. Then there’s the psychology of penalties. Consequences that are Positive, Immediate and Certain influence our behaviours more than consequences that are Negative, Delayed and Uncertain. The penalties above are therefore a weak influence on our behaviour.

Human Engineering

So, if telling people not to be naughty and threatening them with punishment (in the unlikely event that they may be caught) isn’t the answer, what is?

We need to take back control. To increase your control over your smartphone, here’s a few practical tips for you and your family, whether driving or not:

  1. Turn off all notifications from all Apps and email services – that way, you check your phone when you want to, not when it chirps or beeps.
  2. Install an App that tracks your phone usage: how many times you unlock the screen, how much time you spend interacting with the device and how much time you spend on each App. Understanding how much ‘screen time’ you have each day may be the prompt that you need to take evasive action. (Yes, I do recognise the irony of installing an App to reduce your screen time. . . ).
  3. Remove all colour from your smartphone screen, by setting a black and white or grey-scale colour filter. When the screen is all shades of grey, it’s much less enticing (insert your own joke about the movie ‘50 Shades of Grey‘).
  4. Remove any Apps from your home screen that you may have an unhealthy relationship with. So, when you turn your screen on to check the time, you don’t ‘just check‘ an App and re-surface an hour later. Out of sight, out of mind. Most people don’t have an addiction issue with Calendar, Maps, Camera or a ride-sharing App, so those are good ones to keep on your home screen.
  5. If you’ve stopped wearing a watch because ‘I always have my phone‘, then reconsider your decision. I actually find the ‘ticking’ movement of a mechanical watch to be an antidote to the technology that invades my daily life, but any watch will do. The aim is simply to keep your smartphone in your pocket as much as possible. For those of you who like a challenge, don’t keep your smartphone in the bedroom and buy an alarm clock instead. The world won’t end, I promise.
  6. If you use Apps that deliver video content, change the settings so that they no longer Autoplay (where the next video plays automatically).
  7. Disable the Infinite Scroll function on all Apps (this is the feature that continues to load more content as you scroll down).

Smartphones and driving

The tips above should help you to gain some control over when and how often you interact with your smartphone (if that’s what you want!), but what about whilst driving?

Phone compartment - humanfactors101 - distraction
  1. You may already use ‘Airplane mode‘ on your smartphone, so consider a ‘Driving mode‘. Before you start driving, set-up auto-replies to texts and calls so that others know you are not responding because you are driving. For example, some iPhones have a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature that stops notifications and sends an auto-reply to texts whilst the vehicle is in motion.

    Several phone companies provide Apps that do the same thing (e.g. AT&T DriveMode®, Verizon Safely Go®, and Sprint Drive First®). Some of these Apps turn on automatically when they connect to a vehicle via Bluetooth, others text parents if their children use a mobile whilst driving or disable the App.

    These settings or Apps are useful if you still want to use your smartphone as a navigation device (but please don’t program your navigation device whilst driving. . . ).
  2. Try converting your glove box into a ‘phone box’. Get into the habit of putting your phone away when you get behind the wheel. Let’s face it, you probably don’t actually put gloves in the glove box, do you? Putting your phone in the glove box should become as natural as putting on your seatbelt. Even if you put your mobile on silent and out of hands reach whilst driving, it can still be available to you in an emergency.
  3. Research shows that more than half of teenagers use their mobile phone to talk to their parents whilst driving. If you know that someone may be driving, don’t call or text them. You don’t want that call or text to be the last time that you distract them. If you are an employer, do you create an expectation that your employees should answer calls whilst driving? Note that employers may be held partly liable for crashes involving mobile phones.
  4. Parents – what have you been teaching your children? Have they learnt from you that it’s OK to make calls or text whilst driving? Half of all teenagers have been in a car while their parent or guardian was driving and texting. Make sure that you are a role model for good driving behaviours. And have ‘the conversation’ with teenagers before an accident occurs.

What next?

Increased smartphone use and new technology in vehicles is causing distracted driving to become an epidemic.

During an advanced driving course, the instructor told me to assume that everyone else on the road is a complete idiot and drive accordingly. I still think that was great advice. Human factors research shows that drivers distracted by their mobile (even when hands-free) only see half of the information around them. Assume that the drivers around you may be distracted, and try to anticipate what that might mean for you.

Almost everyone has seen a driver distracted by a cell phone, but when you’re the one distracted, you often don’t realise that driver is you.

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