Why do people constantly check their smartphones?
I was recently asked this question by Finland's top newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. Click for story in Finnish.
There are a lot of specific reasons, but here are 3 drivers of this behaviour.
First, think of rosary or ‘worry beads,’ which humans have held in their hands for millennia; the tactile touch is reassuring and something simple to do when we are nervous or bored—this is the physical/material factor of handheld devices. This could also be called the boredom factor.
Second, there is the avoidance factor, i.e., when we are in (even slightly) awkward social situations and want to avoid eye contact with others, we relieve the social pressure by gazing into our handheld screens instead of meeting the eyes of a stranger. This makes perfect sense as the cost of engagement with others adds up in dense social settings. We do this naturally in busy city streets where we cannot look into every passing strangers’ eyes, so we tend to avoid all eye contact, reserving our attention to the familiar, like a friendly message or favourite app on our smartphone.
Finally, there is the fear factor as some of us are driven by the ‘fear of missing out' (FOMO), that feeling that something interesting and important MIGHT be happening and we want to know about it, i.e., we don’t want to ‘miss out' on what's going on. Of course, much of life happens to be more or less mundane, so the odds of something truly significant happening is low, but still probable enough to not ‘risk’ missing it. This latter drive is understandably heightened in younger users, where the need for social inclusion and acceptance is relatively high.