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Why We’re Addicted To Our Smartphones, But Not Our Tablets

Remember all of the wisecracks about executives and their BlackBerry addictions? Back then, constant contact was limited to the few and the mighty — relatively speaking, of course. But now, the last laugh might be on us. In record time, our smartphones have become indispensable, and as mobile technology has become integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives, our smartphones are shifting from device to dependency.

But while it’s now clear that we are locked in an intense relationship with our smartphones, one has to wonder why this courtship hasn’t turned into a love triangle with tablets. After all, no matter how sleek our iPhone 6 is, our iPad or Android tablet is equally smooth and packed with life-organizing apps.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

So, what is it about our smartphones that makes them so attractive? And why is the addiction we feel toward them so much stronger than to our tablets?

Old Habits Die Hard Link

The average mobile phone user checks their device 150 times a day5, and a recent study cited6 that 94% of college students reported feeling troubled when not carrying their phones with them. 80% of them said they felt jealous when someone else held their phones, and 70% said they expected to have feelings of depression, panic and helplessness if their phones were lost or stolen.

Tablets don’t trigger such intense emotions because, although they have all of the bells and whistles needed for them to be classified as mobile devices, we tend not to see them in that way.

According to Salesforce’s “2014 Mobile Behavior Report7” (PDF), just 14% of consumers associate tablets and e-readers with the word “mobile.” Instead, the tablet is regarded largely as an in-home device that lends itself well to cross-device usage. People who own both a smartphone and a tablet don’t spend any less time using their smartphone than those who don’t own a tablet, which means that we regard them as filling different functions. They aren’t interchangeable, despite their similarity in function and design.

The adage “old habits die hard” has a neurological basis. Behaviors turn into habits when they become automatic. Do you lock your door without thinking or find yourself brushing your teeth without even remembering walking into the bathroom? Those are habits. But when do habits turn from harmless to harmful?

When you perform a specific behavior regularly and often, its pattern becomes etched in your neural pathways. Smartphones are designed to get us to check them repeatedly — new emails, text messages and Facebook updates beckon throughout the day, urging us to constantly pull the device out of our pocket. This behavior — checking the screen — quickly becomes habit by nature of its routine. But when that habit turns from a want into a need — meaning we start to feel anxious or disconnected from the world around us if we don’t check the phone — then the action morphs from habit into reflex.

There’s also a feedback loop at play here with our smartphones. When a certain behavior makes you feel good, you will return to it again and again. So, if playing a game on your smartphone tends to relax you when you feel stressed, then the pleasure or comfort brought on by the game — the positive feedback from indulging an urge — encourages repetitive behavior.

BuzzFeed’s mobile view8

BuzzFeed9’s mobile view.

Zooming in on our neurological pathways, the difference between a habit and an addiction is the development of intolerance. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, behavioral addictions are mapped out the same way in the brain: Both cause a high or “buzz,” brought on by that positive feedback loop, and both can produce feelings of withdrawal if they are not indulged. Do you whip out your smartphone when you feel bored, lonely or anxious in order to squelch those feelings? Be careful: In doing so, you are building strong neurological connections between the urge to check your phone and the buzz-like relief of doing so. Repeat those actions enough, and soon the casual updating of your Facebook status will become something much more urgent.

Speaking of buzz, websites like Buzzfeed use exactly that model to keep users engaged through associative linkage — linking one idea to the next through casual associations. Visitors on Buzzfeed (or Bored Panda or Facebook…) generally don’t have a specific goal in mind; rather, they’re looking for amusement or a break. They can be engaged by links to similar content at the bottom of each article, leading them to jump from one article of interest to the next.

When Want Becomes Need Link

All great love stories carry the same refrain: the enamored duo looks longingly at each other and thinks, “How did we ever live without each other?”

With your smartphone, there’s a similar — but more sinister — pattern. The more you use your phone, satisfying your hungry neurons with the positive feedback of constant connectivity, the more you wonder how you ever lived without it.

We use our tablets a lot, too, but when we pick them up and handle them, they feel different to us than our phones do. The phone has come to represent our portal into the social world, signifying connectivity to all that is happening outside and around us. It sits in our pocket or our purse, sending and receiving signals and acting as a crucial link that anchors and moors us via its messages, social networks and constant texts. We have come to feel that our phone is like an extension of our body, which is why, when you forget it at home one morning, you have that same sinking feeling you might get if you looked down and realized one of your limbs was missing.

Tablets, however, are used not in “connection mode,” but rather in “browsing mode.” We tend to use our tablets for passive activities, like watching videos and reading books, so that crucial feedback of connection and community that our phones provide is left out of the equation. What we are addicted to with our phones is the way they make us feel in relation to the outside world. According to research, our tablets, however, are used for more personal, solitary endeavors, making the neurological response to their presence entirely different.

A Vacation From Stimulation? Link

The online world is packed with stimuli — emails, chats, popup ads and the nonstop churn of online news. There’s just no way the real world can compete; and by constantly checking our messages and scrolling through news feeds, we set a new baseline for neurological stimulation that the real world can’t possibly keep up with.

All of this constant stimulation comes with a price. “Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost,” says Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT. “Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”

According to a recent study10, the brain can take from 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email, and even though you could “fix” this by simply switching your phone or notifications off during work, your brain is still hooked on having to check the phone.

For us, designers and developers, these facts can be harnessed for good. Obviously we can’t know how users are going to access your sites, but in many cases, they will be in browsing mode. The experience in this case is instant; it’s here and now. They’re in connection mode during their spare time and will end up purchasing if the product is exciting enough.

Smartphones are designed to get us to check them repeatedly11

Smartphones are designed to get us to check them repeatedly. New emails, text messages and Facebook updates beckon throughout the day, urging us to constantly pull our device out of our pocket.

If you own a smartphone, chances are your brain pathways are already showing some signs of dependence. So, the next time you are tempted to snicker at the Google Glassholes or the BlackBerry addicts, take a look in the mirror — a real mirror, not an app on your phone — and ask yourself whether your own relationship with your smartphone is healthy.

Conclusion Link

When designing content, keep in mind that smartphones and tablets activate different mindsets. So, match the experience of each device to the particular mindset it activates. Research claims that users are in “connection mode” while using smartphones and in passive “browsing mode” while on their tablets. There are exceptions of course, and we have to keep them in mind, but we are certainly more connected to phones than to tablets, and that’s something we should keep in mind when crafting cross-browser experiences.

(da, ml, al, jb)

Footnotes Link

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Liraz Margalit, PhD, is a Web psychologist at ClickTale, a company that provides website optimization software and consulting. She analyzes online consumer behavior from a psychological perspective. Her analyses incorporate theory and academic research into a conceptual framework that creates insights into online consumer behavior. Liraz writes ongoing blog for Psychology Today named “Behind Online Behavior.” She previously held a post-doctoral internship with the Program of Political Psychology and Decision Making at the Lauder School of Government — IDC (Herzlia), where she is a lecturer.

  1. 1

    Jose Rosas/ Tripticos

    November 4, 2015 11:15 pm

    Great!, i mean nowdays its very rare to find someone that is not looking to a smartphone, people carrys to everywhere, its funny when you look to someone that has no smartphone and its looks like they has lost one part of itself, now for the brands its a great way to get to costumers, because all day they are looking for info, texting and other things, the people that offer a service or product may take this oportunity and get to hundreds of potential clients!
    Great post!

  2. 2

    I use my iPad 2 several hours a day, every day. I’ve never had such an intimate relationship with a computing device in more than 30 years, and if that’s a definition of addiction, then I’m addicted.

    The fact is my 4 year old iPad has never given me a moment’s problem, and I’ve never found a reason to change it.

    That’s a testament to the quality of Apple’s original design, and to its ability to build something so reliable, and keep it up to date: I’m running today’s latest Apple iOS !

    Multiplied millions of time for iPad users everywhere and I think we can see why the growth in iPad sales is slower than for iPhones.

    I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.

  3. 3

    I think it’s also due to smartphones having full phone functionality – whereas tablets do not. A smart phone can do everything a tablet can do and more… a tablet can do most things a phone can do on a larger screen. In my opinion a smartphone is a must whereas a tablet is a nice to have.

    • 4

      Dmitri Tcherbadji

      November 5, 2015 6:34 am

      I can’t say that I agree with you here entirely. There’s nothing that a phone can do that tablets can’t. A lot of them can make calls and send text messages now.

      One thing that (I wonder why) seemed to have been skipped in the article by the author is the SIZE.

      I believe that besides the software, apps and internal functionality tablets and phones make a huge difference basically due to their size. Even large phones are still smaller than small tablets. They can fit in your pocket and you won’t look like an idiot holding it to your ear while on the call. The property alone can drive people to leave their larger devices at home and never use them on the road or at work.

      So, why was the device size omitted in this article’s discussion? ;)

      • 5

        Fully agree with you. My phone is with me far more often than my tablet so I reach for that more often.

        I have nothing against tablets but when they first became popular I wondered why people spoke of a gap in the market. I feel there’s a massive overlap in what my phone & laptop can do, there’s definitely no gap between them that *needs* filling with another device class.

    • 6

      To go along with this. I have no desire to pay for a tablet data plan, in addition to my cell phone and home internet. Without cell data, and the ability to store in my pocket, the tablet stays home. Out of sight, out of charge, out of mind for me.

      • 7

        Haha! Yep, my tablet is always out of charge – further enforcing the loop of never using it. If I want to use it, I have to charge it. Therefore I’ll use my phone or my computer instead.

  4. 8

    I always forget where I put my smartphone… because I addicted to my Ipad, playing coc and play poker online at all day. even read this I use my Ipad.

  5. 9

    Kaushik Sharma

    November 5, 2015 12:10 pm

    Well written. Our smart phones are not habits but indeed a great addiction.

  6. 10

    I follow the “Larger Screen Rules” rule, meaning that I don’t do anything on my iPhone that I can do on my iPad and I don’t do anything on my iPad that I can do on my iMac.

  7. 11

    Well said, but I take issue with the use of the word “addiction.” Habits are not addictions. While people may feel anxiety about not having their phone with them, it’s not withdrawal. People throw around the word addiction because it makes their obsessions and habits into something that’s out-of-their-control – it’s an addiction.

    If you’ve ever been truly addicted to something, you would know the difference.

    • 12

      Habits can become addictions when they trigger neurological feedback loops that stimulate the release of whatever chemicals that make you feel good. They basically stated that in this article.

      I have a very close friend who is a PhD psychologist who works with video game addiction. I love video games, so this is a topic we chat about regularly. One would probably argue the same thing about video game addiction– “But there are no chemicals involved, its not real!”. Meanwhile, there are mountains of evidence of neurological/habitual/addictive behaviors that dont necessarily manifest in physical ways like The Shakes, but do manifest in deeper psychological forms like depression and anxiety (which can truly affect your life for the worst).

      To which you may say, “Well, these people already had depression and anxiety and they are actually finding solice in this new device through self-medication.” At which point, one may say, indeed that may be true for some; however, this is not the point being argued. We are talking about people that previously did not exhibit these neurological patterns, and the habitual use of these devices actually increased or manifested these symptoms into measurable levels that can officially be labeled in the “problematic” side of the spectrum.

  8. 13

    What do the post scripts mean on Smashing articles? e.g. “(da, ml, al, jb)”

    • 14

      If you inspect the element the property says “editor”, so my guess is they´re initials.

  9. 15

    Aaron Epstein

    November 6, 2015 5:08 am

    Great article! I completely feel that addiction with my phone. I actually bought the Google Nexus 7 a year and a half ago. It was kind of on a whim just to see the compelling difference, being that I’m a UX/Web Designer. I sold it within a few months. I never could get use to it. I did think that maybe the 7 was too similar to a phone but still haven’t had an urge to buy one now.

    What resources can you provide to a novice User Experience Designer? Books, good websites (like perhaps your portfolio), etc.



    • 16

      Being in the field of UX – it should be easy to answer a basic questions: where do you use the phone and where would you use the tablet? The one falling into a few categories more often will most likely substitute the same use of the other one. Simple prediction: the tablet is redundantent on most (taking a notebook or standalone computer also in mind). Therefore you’ll find yourself with a device more suitable for your task than a tablet most of the time making you feel it was a unnecessary gadget.

  10. 17

    Wait until you get a large screen tablet. Anything under 12″ means you’re having to zoom in and out all the time; when your screen size is ~12″, it’s practically a sheet of paper at 100%. Magazines are enjoyable to read, movies are worth watching, and drawing on it is ideal. I have three devices: a phone with a 5″ screen, a 7″ tablet and a 12″ tablet. I tend to split my time equally between my 12″ tablet and my phone, with the 7″ tablet used primarily for games. Games take up a lot of battery, which is why I don’t use my phone for them.

  11. 18

    Hmm… I’m not so sure. I read a report earlier about young children become addicted to using tablets just as much as adults are using phones. Why? Because they get hooked on the games that create the stimulation interaction. A friends child is a great example of that whereby he would cry on end if his parents took the tablet away … and at some point they had to start to hide the tablet to reduce his need to use it everyday.

    So while I appreciate this research I think it depends on the target audience…

  12. 19

    Web psychologist???

  13. 20

    I use my iPhone in emergencies situations only, and sometimes to take a photo here and there. For everything else I use my landline, iMac and iPad2.

    Smart phones are not only to small for most uses, but the radioactive waves makes them bad for long-term use.

  14. 21

    Nice Blog….

    Thank you for providing such a good information…

  15. 22

    For me, it comes down to a couple of factors:

    Data plans. All of the tablets in my household are WiFi only, so browsing on the go comes back to my phone.

    Screen size, for things like gaming. I never play games on my phone, as they are too battery hungry and the screen size too cumbersome.

    Personal details, or personal apps. Regularly my kids are on my tablet, or on my wife’s iPad. Therefore more personal apps like FB tend to be logged out of on our tablets. Not so with our phones (my kids never have my phone, except to look at photos). My tablet is much more “open” to the public (I don’t even bother with a password on my tablet).

    Assuming I have a WiFi connection though, I’ll use my tablet for internet browsing over my phone. But then, I’ll use my PC more often than not if at home.

    For the younger generation though (considering I have now hit my forties) I see them much more comfortable with, and more likely to have, a phone. So I think age of the user is relevant also.

    I’d like to think I’m not addicted to any of my devices :)

  16. 23

    I think its because of our primary phone number. Should try by putting the primary sim in the tablet.

    I like to do shopping only on my PC rather than on a phone or tablet even though deals are available only in app. Is this behavior related?

  17. 24

    Nice blog..!!


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