Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 8, 2018.
The desire to compulsively check your phone might feel like a disorder—but research shows that our attraction to the internet highlights "some of the mind's most salient, and utterly normal, operations," Sharon Begley writes in STAT News.
Compulsive behavior, Begley explains, is repeated, chronic, and performed in response to anxiety. Compulsively checking your phone is not considered a "disorder," though, because the action is based in reality—it isn't delusional—and typically does not interfere with leading a normal life.
'What else can you do in five seconds that's interesting?'
Moez Limayem, deanof the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business and lead author of a 2015 study on mobile phone use, explained that the urge to repeatedly check your phone probably isn't for pleasure, but rather a response to "heightened stress and anxiety."
And people often feel anxious when they're unoccupied, even if just for a few moments, Begley writes. She points to a 2014 study in which participants were given the option of doing nothing for 15 minutes or receiving a small electric shock. Two-thirds of the men and one-quarter of the women opted to receive an electric shock.
As Tom Stafford, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield, put it, "What else can you do in five seconds that's interesting? Why not check your phone?" That's a big part of why "using the internet can be compulsive," he said.
Moreover, checking the internet brings "payoffs structured like a slot machine's," Begley writes. She explains that just like a slot machine, the internet can bring either a payoff—say, an interesting article—or nothing worthwhile. "If I give you a treat sometimes, you have to keep checking all the time," Stafford said.
The social media 'security blanket'
Further, research shows that when people can't check their text messages, "the anxiety that the compulsive behavior alleviates comes roaring back," Begley writes.
Among other research, Begley points to a 2016 study that examined how people with and without their phones managed stress while waiting to tackle a difficult task. The study found that among participants who were allowed access to their phone beforehand, half said they felt stressed. In contrast, about three-quarters of those who were not able to access their phones before the task said they felt stressed. Alejandro Lleras, lead study author and a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described it as a security-blanket effect.
The study authors wrote, "People seem to be less vulnerable to becoming stressed in anxiety-provoking situations when they have access" to their phone.
The internet and FOMO
The internet exploits humans' fear of missing out, or "FOMO," Begley writes. "Being disconnected is synonymous with missing out."
For instance, she cites a 2010 study by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland. The study found students who were asked to abstain from media for 24 hours, used language that suggested they felt disconnected and anxious that they were missing out to describe the experience. Their responses also used terms that suggested compulsions, such as "frantically craving" or "jittery."
So, if "existence is defined these days by an online presence, then not being online is not to exist," Begley writes—and "that causes the most unbearable and existential anxiety there is." In that framework, she argues that digital compulsions should be regarded "not as a pathology, but as the result of the online world's ability to tap into something deep in the human psyche and make many of us digital casualties" (Begley, STAT News, 2/8).
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