For Teens, By Teens: A Study on Phone Usage and Its Effects


In 2007, the first iPhone became available. This hand-held atomic bomb of a device exploded over the next decade, offering social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter on mobile. Since the invention of the iPhone, the amount of time spent on cell phones has skyrocketed worldwide and only continues to grow as more social media and entertainment applications become popular.

Many individuals have raised questions in relation to this new entity; trying to understand exactly how much time the average American youth spends on their phone, and the effects this lifestyle (as it is fast becoming) has on their lives.

Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer for the Huffington Post, says in an article entitled ‘You Probably Use Your Smartphone Way More Than You Think’ says, “New research conducted by British psychologists shows that young adults use their smartphones roughly twice as much as they estimate that they do.” According to Common Sense Media, 59% of parents would consider their teens to be addicted to their phones. Psychiatrist Florence Jensen, in her book The Teenage Brain, expands on the notion that millennials are addicted to their phones by noting that the use of digital technology like smartphones have become rooted in the teenage psyche so much so that when they are deprived of media, many of them experience withdrawal-like symptoms like those experienced by those addicted to drugs.

I wanted to test the claim that young adults use their phones more often than they think, so I collected a group of freshmen in my major (International Studies) and asked them individually how many times they think they check their phones in a 24 hour period. I also asked how much time overall they believe that they spend on their phones in this time frame. My classmates answered with looks of mingled focus and sheepishness, perhaps recognizing, for the first time, how much they actually spend on a screen. I next asked if they would be willing to download an app called Moment that would track both of these behaviors for the next five days. Many individuals seemed surprised that I was going to check their estimates so invasively, but they all kindly agreed, with varying degrees of apprehensiveness, to participate.

Before we continue, I want to admit the serious limitations of my informal study. Once teens are aware that their time on their devices is being tracked, they might be more self-conscious and therefore prone to altering the amount of time they spend on their phones. This defect is called the Hawthorne Effect, and it may have been a complicating factor in my research. To partially mitigate this effect, the participants were given 24 hours to fall back into a regular routine before the data collection began. Additionally, the students were instructed to place the Moment app icon in a discrete location so as not to be reminded of its existence every time they opened their phones. These measures, though not foolproof, may have helped the research to be less biased.

The accompanying table displays the participants’ assumptions compared to the actual data. Cricket, Rana, and Earnest* were participants who contradict the hypothesis that students underestimate the time they spend on their phones. Cricket and Earnest predicted thirty minutes more than they actually spent, and Rana fell short by a full hour. The majority (67%), however, spent more time overall than they had anticipated. Interestingly, most who did spend more time than they estimated tended to spend a lot more than expected. Take participant Springer for example. Springer estimated that she spends an average of an hour and a half on her phone each day. However, her Moment data showed that she spent about 5 hours on her phone during each observed day. Carol exemplifies the Huffington Post’s claim, spending almost twice as much time as expected. Half of the participants spent at least four hours on their phones--that is, over 25% of the waking day (8 am – 11 pm though, admittedly, Covenant students are not guaranteed to spend any significant amount of time asleep).

According to Dr. Sally Andrews, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, “The fact that we use our phones twice as many times as we think we do indicates that a lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviors that we have no awareness of.” The participants in my informal study were not immune to such habitual phone use. Together they checked their phones an average of 70 times per day--almost five times per waking hour!

In my interview with Dr. Eames, a professor and psychologist at my college, told me about a journalist named Jean Twenge who wrote an article for the Atlantic entitled ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’ Professor Twenge found several correlations for those born between 1995 and 2012. She notes that the more time teens spend looking at the screens of their devices, the more likely they are to delay getting a driver's license, less likely to get adequate sleep, and even less likely to date.

Writer Carolyn Gregoire’s claim that teens spend more time than they anticipate on their phones found some support in the study I conducted with a small group of students here at Covenant College. It is evident that knowledge is our greatest weapon as we explore new ways of connecting with each other and learn how best to integrate technology into our lives. We must test every foreign influence on our lives so we do not become like frogs in warm water that do not realize they are dinner until the water is boiling.

* names changed to protect participants' privacy

Charts and Data:

Number of Pickups/Day: Expected vs. Actual

Number of Hours/Day: Expected vs. Actual