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High smartphone use linked with impulsiveness and instant rewards

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Smartphone users who spend a lot of time gaming or browsing social media apps have less self-control and are more impulsive, study finds

  • Experts prevent evidence that smartphone use is associated with impulsiveness
  • In trials people with high phone use were more likely to opt for an instant reward
  • This may be a sign of being prone to overeating, gambling & alcohol dependence

By Jonathan Chadwick For Mailonline

Published: | Updated:

People who spend a lot of time on their smartphones are more likely to act impulsively and opt for instant rewards, a new study shows.

German researchers found a link between high smartphone use – particularly on gaming or social media apps – and the desire for immediate monetary rewards.   

They suggest that people who would rather have a small reward now rather than something bigger later – a psychological phenomenon known as ‘delay discounting’ – are more at risk of other addictive behaviours such as overeating, gambling and drinking. 

New analysis in Germany adds to evidence that that smartphone use is associated with impulsivity

‘Our findings provide further evidence that smartphone use and impulsive decision-making go hand in hand and that engagement with this device needs to be critically examined by researchers to guide prudent behaviour,’ say the authors, from Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany. 

‘The omnipresence of smartphones among adolescents and adults gives rise to the questions about excessive use and personality factors which are associated with heavier engagement with these devices.’

Previous research has suggested behavioural similarities between excessive smartphone use behaviours such as alcohol abuse, compulsive gambling and drug abuse. 

However, most investigations of excessive smartphone use and personality factors linked to longer screen time have relied on self-reported measurements.

Researchers at Freie Universität went one better by recording phone usage data from the devices themselves.

The two-man research team recruited 101 iPhone users who agreed to let them collect actual data on the amount of time they spent on each app, as provided by the iOS feature ‘Battery usage’. 

For every app, this feature shows how long it was actively used on screen and how long it was running in the background without the user engaging with it, but still consuming battery life.    

Phone use data was collected for the last 10 days, or for those with phones with older iOS versions the last seven days.    

The tendency to prefer smaller immediate rewards over larger delayed rewards was assessed using the 27-item Monetary Choice Questionnaire

Rewards preference behaviours was assessed using a German translation of the 27-item Monetary Choice Questionnaire 

In this questionnaire, participants repeatedly choose between a smaller reward available immediately or a larger reward available in the future.

All rewards are hypothetical and consist of small (e.g. £15), medium (e.g. £40) and large amounts of money (e.g. £80).     

Analysis of the results found that participants with greater total screen time were more likely to prefer smaller, immediate rewards to larger, delayed rewards. 

A preference for smaller, immediate rewards was linked to heavier use of two specific types of apps – gaming and social media.  

Participants who demonstrated greater self-control spent less time on their phones.

But levels of what’s known as ‘consideration of future consequences’ (CFC) showed no correlation with their screen time. 

CFC is a personality trait defined as the extent to which individuals consider the potential future outcomes of their current behaviour and the extent to which they are influenced by the imagined outcomes. 

Neither self-control nor CFC appeared to impact the relationship between screen time and preference for smaller, immediate rewards.

According to the team, their findings add to growing evidence for a link between smartphone use and impulsive decision-making, and they support the similarity between smartphone use and other negative behaviours. 

‘Given the ever-growing role smartphones play in people’s daily lives and the implied risk of overuse, it is crucial to understand individual differences which relate to smartphone usage,’ the team say in their paper, published in PLOS ONE.

‘Our findings suggest that especially heavy social media users and gamers should be mindful of their tendency to be drawn to smaller, immediate rewards. 

‘Alternatively, people who are already aware of their impulsive decision-making may benefit from the knowledge of their increased risk of overusing smartphones. 

‘These conclusions contribute to the view that smartphone use should not be underestimated but researched carefully to guide policy makers in shaping prudent use of this omnipresent technology.’   

DELAY DISCOUNTING AND GENETICS 

The phenomenon scientists call delay discounting can tell a lot about a person’s ability to set and attain goals. 

Some people are more likely to prefer smaller but immediate rewards rather than larger but delayed rewards. 

The tendency to prefer immediate rewards, even if they are smaller, has been linked to impulsive behaviour, which is connected to problems such as substance abuse and addiction. 

Studying twins over a number of years, Washington University researchers previously found that genetic factors underlie the preference for short-term rewards. 

Researchers also have identified genes linked to the brain’s serotonin and opioid systems as contributors to the preference for rewards now rather than later.

If you’d rather have a small reward now versus something bigger later, you may be at risk for problems like addiction or obesity.    

Source: Washington University School of Medicine 

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