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January 15, 2021
by Tina Arnoldi

Smartphone Users Choose Short-Term Rewards

January 15, 2021 08:42 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]

Photo by Raychan on UnsplashSmartphones may or may not be evil - depending on whom you ask. Some studies show people spend too much time on their phones which negatively impacts their mental health. Others claim it's how people feel about their use more than the use itself.

A recent study in PLOS found that “smartphone screen time was correlated with choosing smaller immediate over larger delayed rewards and that usage of social media and gaming apps predicted delay discounting. Additionally, smartphone use was negatively correlated with self-control but not correlated with consideration of future consequences.” Although it was a small sample with usage data from 101 participants, several experts agree with the study findings.

Craig Anthony, founder and lead developer of FitLinkAI, was surprised the correlation between net screen time and self-control in the study was only -0.32. “If I had to bet money,” said Anthony, “I would have thought it would be more like -0.60, or -0.70.” He notes higher net screen time implies the user has some level of addiction, whether to the phone or specific apps. When people find any behavior rewarding, the brain treats it the same way it treats drugs.

Anthony said, “It's not a stretch to put phone and app addicts into the same category as drug users. Certain games and social networks are designed to provide dopamine spikes and be rewarding. People get a dopamine hit when they see a like, or positive comment about a post. The neurons firing in your brain are nearly the same for a hit of drugs as they are for a hit of your favorite social network.”

Antti Alatalo, CEO and founder of Smart Watches 4 U also acknowledges the dopamine hits from usage. “Smartphone use gives us opportunities for immediate rewards, and we take it. When playing a mobile game, we opt for the shortcut by paying for the micro-transaction rather than spending hours to build an avatar, even though that gives players more appreciation of their in-game achievement. The option is there, so we take it.” But he doesn’t feel this reaches into our lives as a whole. "I don't assume this is an alarming sign that we're losing self-control or choosing immediate rewards over delayed gratifications when it comes to important life decisions," he added.

The dangers of activating dopamine through smartphone use go unnoticed since it’s not a substance we put in our bodies. Mika Kujapelto, CEO and founder at LaptopUnboxed, explains this with people who drive and text even though they know they shouldn’t. “Texting while you're driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving since it can make you react slower," said Kujapelo. “Therefore, those who don't pull the car over to text, instead of potentially causing an accident, is an example of impulsive behavior seen in people who use their phones too much.”

Even people who have good habits recognize the dangers of too much smartphone use. Milosz Krasinski, managing director of Chilli Fruit, doesn’t consider himself a phone addict, but finds it difficult to not immediately respond to a notification from his phone even in the middle of doing something. Anybody who has lost their phone, even temporarily, may recognize the sense of panic that follows,” said Krasinski, “a heightened emotion which is pretty extreme; it has been compared to the sense of panic following a minor accident. While many think this is something unique to teenagers and young people, this isn’t the case as many older people use their smartphones as an extension of their offices.” 

Jack Zmudzinski, senior associate with Future Processing, referenced a study that monitored and filmed smartphone users during a 24 hour period. “When shown the footage afterwards, many of these users didn’t actually remember taking out their phones at various times,” said Zmudzinki, “something which highlights just how automatic this behavior is.”

App developer Tushar Sharma, believes constantly checking smartphone notifications inevitably has a negative effect on an individual's attention span. “I have turned off my smartphone's social media notifications and I check them only twice a day,” said Sharma. “Reducing screen time is hard but I don’t use any of my devices for two hours in the morning. I believe that PLOS's report was right to conclude that there's a correlation between screen-time and delay-discounting. We value a comfortable present more than working hard and waiting for a better future, and social media sites and games offer just that; you are just a few clicks away from escaping your responsibilities."

But smartphone use may not need to be studied in a separate bucket in regards to behavior. Richard Waters, founder and managing director of Row, views smartphones like most everything else. “If we use something way more than we should, it will cause an adverse effect on us physically, mentally, or emotionally.” He suggests we consider what people use phones for along with usage time.

Daniel Cooper, software engineer and managing director with concludes, “With smartphones, it is all about balance and moderation. Use smartphones, but take a break periodically. It gives you perspective and protects you from impulsive decisions or any other smartphone induced negative behavior.”

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a marketing consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. Learn more about her and connect at

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