The Science Behind Cell Phone Addiction

Key Takeaways

  • Cell phone addiction is purposeful by design.
    • Technologists have been highly effective at creating an addictive environment for cell phone users.
  • Cell phone misuse is vastly underestimated.
    • Studies have shown that driver distraction — especially cell phone distraction — may be up to 100x as pervasive as originally thought.
  • Cell phone distraction is the only “high volume” distractor for driving.
    • Other distraction elements (looking at people, interacting with radio, drinking, personal grooming, looking at work orders, eating, etc.) are very infrequent compared to cell phone use – studies have shown we interact with our phones 9 times in a 20 mile trip.
  • Identification of mobile device addiction will not correct it.
    • Intervention is required to break the cell phone addiction cycle of misuse.


    cell phone addiction


    Cell phone addiction is purposely designed

    In understanding why cell phones are addictive, we need to explore the science behind cell phone addiction. Tech companies have successfully designed apps and interfaces that hook users with an experience equivalent to a “mini high” similar to your brain on cocaine.  The “feel good” drug, Dopamine, is released when we take a bite of delicious food, have sex, exercise, and, notably, when we have successful social interactions. This reward mechanism keeps us continually coming back for more. With respect to distracted driving, this translates into a 28% reduction in watching the road while operating a vehicle.

    The impact of cell phone addiction

    Drivers use their phones an average of 1-minute, 52-seconds every hour behind the wheel. At 55 mph, this is like driving 1.2-miles blindfolded—or the length of 21 football fields. However, this stat also takes into account the drivers who don’t use their phones at all. When looking only at drivers who use their phones at least once, this average doubles, shooting up to 3-minutes, 40-seconds of every hour. At 55 mph, this is like 42 football fields blindfolded!

    More alarming stats about distracted driving:

    • Using a cell phone while driving causes 26% of vehicle accidents.
    • Research shows that people touch their phones 2,617 times per day.
    • Adults in the US spend an average of 2-4 hours per day tapping, typing, and swiping on their devices.
    • Drivers are distracted by their phones up to 9 times during a typical 20 mile commute.

    For a deeper dive into how smartphones have been intentionally engineered to tap into our most addictive qualities, in Harvard’s Science in the News publication.

    Bottom line: Constant interaction with our cell phones has one clear end result. For significant periods of time, we just aren’t watching the road. If we aren’t watching the road, we are not focused on driving.  If we aren’t focused on driving, it is inevitable that accidents will happen.

    Cell phone misuse is vastly underreported

    As if the magnitude of the mobile device addiction problem is not enough, it is clear that distracted driving and cell phone use while driving are seriously under-reported.  Zendrive’s 2018 study concluded that “69 million drivers use their phones behind the wheel every day, far higher than the 660,000 daily distracted drivers reported by government data”.

    “We believe the number of crashes involving cell phone use is much greater than what is being reported,” said Janet Froetscher, President and CEO of the National Safety Council, in a news release on the study. “Many factors, from drivers not admitting cell phone use, to a lack of consistency in crash reports being used to collect data at the scene, make it very challenging to determine an accurate number.”

    Cell phone usage is the highest volume distractor

    When we think of things that distract our driving, looking at work orders, adjusting the radio, observing other people, eating, drinking, and personal grooming probably come to mind. Other than cell phone use, all of these distractors have been around a long time — and their impact on risk is well understood.  And with the exception of cell phone use, each of these distractors are relatively low in volume. With our addictive need for gratification, we are drawn to interacting with our phones continuously.  Because of the relative recency of the cell phone distraction problem, the impact is not as widely acknowledged as other distractors nor have appropriate responses been standardized.

    Phone distraction involves: physical distraction (actually handling the phone), visual distraction (looking at the phone, taking your eyes off the road), and cognitive distraction (thinking about things other than driving).  No matter how smart we think we are, human brains are single-process-oriented. This means that we can basically do one thing at a time.  We think that we can “multi-task” very well — jumping from one task to another. The reality is that each jump requires a period of readjustment to fully process the context of the current situation.  This is especially important with driving and the need to continuously process the many external signals that are required to drive safely.

    With phone distraction being the highest volume distractor for a driver, our ability to see and respond safely to any driving situation is seriously compromised while we’re interacting with our phones.  Our ability to focus on all the contextual elements of driving — what is going on in front of me, what lights and signs are telling me, what vehicles in my proximity are doing — is compromised.

    Why identifying cell phone addiction doesn’t correct it

    Phones are unique in comparison to all other factors contributing to distracted driving. Firstly, phone distractions are far more frequent.  What’s more is that phones also tap directly into our most addictive behavior.  Therefore, the mobile addiction misuse will not be eliminated by simply telling the addict (aka, everyone with a cell phone) that there is a problem. The answer is to make the problem nonexistent. This is why the category of cell phone compliance solutions exists. We would encourage any fleet operator with company issued phones or tablets to seriously consider using a mobile device compliance solution to enforce handsfree compliance for their employees.

About Alan Mann

Driver risk scoring/coaching/cell phone distraction avoidance/driver behavior expert.
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