Smartphone use and smartphone addiction: a Q&A with Maxi Heitmayer

Investigating everyday interactions with smartphones and the context of these interactions

Maxi is a PhD candidate with the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science

With so many of us using smartphones, we need to reflect on how we use them.

Maxi Heitmayer

Maxi Heitmayer
Maxi Heitmayer

What are you currently researching?

I’m researching smartphone use and smartphone addiction.

To do this, I carried out a study using Subjective Evidence-Based Ethnography (SEBE) where I asked participants to wear glasses with miniature cameras attached so they could record their everyday interactions with their smartphones and the context of these interactions.

I then watched these videos back with the participants and asked them to talk me through their experiences, which created an unprecedentedly rich and insightful data set. Privacy and safety are at the core of my research so, if someone decided they didn’t want to share their videos with me – that was fine too!

A lot of research in this area focuses on the content people engage with on their phones but I argue it’s also important to look at the context in which people use their phones. For example: are they alone when they use their phone, are they with friends, are they at work, does the phone prompt the interaction (through ringing, for instance) or does the participant interact with the phone unprompted? Studying these minute differences has not been possible previously.

We tend to think smartphones are disruptive – that they’re constantly ringing and vibrating with notifications - and a lot of time and money goes into designing phones that are less distracting.

However, my research shows smartphones only initiate about 11% of the interactions we have with them. The other 89% of the time, we initiate the interaction. When we have a spare few minutes or we switch tasks, we check our phones.

What else does your research show?

The participants in my study were mainly 18-30 year-old young professionals or students, so further replications with other groups in different contexts are needed. I’m also still finalising my results and writing them up but the research suggests we use our phones a lot – for about one minute every five minutes!

Also, we don’t really use our phones in the traditional ways. Of all the interactions the participants had with their phones - they only used them for text messages, maps and phone calls in less than 1% of interactions. The most common reason for phone use was social media.

People also have patterns when it comes to using their phone and there are certain common habits. For example, people usually have a special place they put their phone when relaxing, sleeping and working.

How do you hope your research will have a wider impact on society?

Through education. With so many of us using smartphones, we need to reflect on how we use them.

In the same way that cars are beneficial, we don’t just let anyone use them, we’re taught how to drive safely so we don’t cause harm. The same applies to smartphones. They’re a powerful tool and we need to teach people – starting from when they’re very young – how to use them.

There’s some great work being done on internet literacy and teaching kids to use the internet safely. I argue children also need to be taught, not just about the content of what’s online, but how they access it and how often – for want of a better term, I’ve called this attention literacy. We need to develop and share techniques so people can self-manage their phone use.

What attracted you to this area of research?

An essay from 1903 by Georg Simmel called The Metropolis and Mental Life.

In 1903, when Simmel observed that more and more people were moving to Berlin from the countryside, he noticed there were constant flashing lights, noises and over-stimulation, and he made some very acute assessments about how society works.

It’s over a 100 years-old, but when I came across his text, I thought it was relevant to our exposure to smartphones and technology today. When looking at modern issues, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to re-discover it and translate it to contemporary situations.

What has been the biggest challenge with your research?

I watched and analysed all the videos of participants using their smartphones and it took me a solid five months!

It was tiring work as I needed to watch out for every time someone used their phone, as well as how long it had been since they were last on their phone, how long they used it for, what they were doing, the time of day, where they were etc…

What has been the biggest highlight of your PhD journey?

Weirdly, it was my PhD upgrade which is usually a source of anxiety and stress. That was true for me too but it was also very stimulating to sit down with three distinguished scholars, who had read my work in detail, and receive their feedback.

You recently took part in a Falling Walls Lab, can you explain a bit more about this?

Falling Walls is a forum, which celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall by looking at the next big barriers, or walls, in research that need to be brought down. The UK lab was co-organised by Jet Sanders – who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE and who won the competition a few years ago.

At the forum, you have three minutes to identify a problem, outline your solution and explain why your solution is innovative. I posed the problem of smartphone addiction and education on attention literacy as the solution. It was good fun and I came in third place.