Sprint Gets iPhone: Are Smartphones Habit-Forming?


Sprint iPhone 5 is coming. That’s right, the network is joining AT&T and Verizon as a carrier of Apple’s smartphone. Many AT&T Apple smartphone users ditched the network the second Verizon announced they were going to start carrying the iPhone. AT&T had notoriously bad coverage, but once people started using their precious iPhones they would rather suffer through bad service than give up the handheld device. Why? Science may have a partial explanation. Smartphones may be habit-forming. It’s true. Research in the June 2011 “Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing” found that introducing personal handheld computers into our lives are making it harder and harder for us to even imagine how we survived on dinky cellular phones that didn’t have full keyboards and lacked Internet browsing capabilities. Yes, there was a time when cellular phones did only one thing, gasp…they made phone calls.

“A concern expressed repeatedly centers around the notion of habit— that is, how new technologies, like mobile phones in the 1990s and laptops and smartphones in the 2000s, spur unforeseen consequences the fabric of everyday life.” That’s right, your cell phones could be habit-forming. Habits are different than behaviors. A habit is a type of behavior that happens automatically based on situational cues. For example, after dinner you may instinctively check your smartphone to see if you missed any calls or texts.

Because we carry our phones with us everywhere, the researchers suggest just by virtue of being in our pocket the phones themselves become a situational cue. This makes sense. If you don’t have chocolate cake in front of you, you can’t eat chocolate cake all day. But if you carry cake in your pocket and it vibrates or rings multiple times reminding you it’s in your pocket, you could develop a chocolate cake habit.

According to the research, “Checking habits are particularly characteristic of smartphone use.” We check our phones often. On dates, when one party gets up to leave, the other checks their phone. On airplanes, the moment we land, we check our phone. After meals, we check our phones. If we’re bored, we check our phones. The researchers also found there is a lot more “short duration” use of our smartphones. This is time spent on the phone that is under 30 seconds in length. We’re checking in, often and for tiny periods of time throughout the day, all day, everyday.

Because we carry the Internet in our pockets, our lives have changed. We no longer carry maps, we use Google maps to navigate our way through town. When you are out with friends and a debate starts, no longer does the loudest know-it-all in the room always win. We whip out our iPhones, turn to Wikipedia and boom, debate solved. We even use our phones for alarm clocks. Many of us literally start our days by hitting snooze on our smartphones.

Habits are hard to break, but we’re pretty sure we’re not going to break these habits. Instead, we’ll just change societal norms.

Did you just get a text? Quick, check your phone. 

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