Smartphone usage is linked to affective effects and reduced pro-social behavior show new studies and that also affects digital marketing and content creation.

There was a time at the turn of the century when anyone suffering from repetitive strain injury (RSI) because of extensive, prolonged mouse use had to contend with disbelief and theories of a “phantom illness”. 

In the years since ergonomic improvements in mouse and keyboard design have resulted in a marked reduction in the incidence of RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome have eliminated a lot of the cases that would have resulted from ordinary use of a mouse and keyboard setup

The point is it’s taken some twenty years to recognize the issue, put mitigating practices and ergonomic solutions in place and then get to deal with the new, additional issues that arise as a result.

Smart Phone Usage And The Brain

Technology changes the use we make of our brain and, as a result, our behavior. Something as relatively ‘simple’ as Googe search does that. 

It is also inevitable that smartphone usage will have an impact. After all, everything we do affects not only how we think but also how we feel. A novel study from  Everyday Media Lab in Germany, and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada looked at smartphone usage and self-reported wellbeing and concluded that extended smartphone screentime leads to feeling socially disconnected offline and lower reported levels of wellbeing. 

Obviously the affective element of extended smartphone usage and screen-time in particular depends upon context and, quite possibly, demographics and maybe socioeconomic conditions. The study’s authors[1] do highlight that it was not possible within the context of their research to filter or test for any of these. 

What they did say however was that “In addition to well-being, we were also interested in examining the impact of smartphone use on feelings of social connection. Dynamics over time suggested that within the same individual, increases in phone use duration predicted decreases in social connectedness, and these decreases in social connectedness in turn predicted increases in smartphone use. This bidirectional link suggests a complex relationship between social connectedness and smartphone use and may point to the risk of a vicious cycle.”  

Smartphone Usage and Pro-Social Behavior

Pro-social behavior is behavior we choose to engage in that actively helps others and betters society as a whole (i.e. helping, cooperating, comforting, etc). We choose to engage in such behavior because it helps us develop our own sense of self-worth and purpose and curate our identity. 

Two research papers that looked at extensive smartphone usage and pro-social behavior agree that the more we use smartphones the less likely we are at engaging in pro-social behavior offline. While each of the studies started out from a different perspective they both examined the connection between screen time and pro-social behavior and they both agreed that pro-social behavior decreases the more screen time and smartphone usage we engage in. 

The first paper cited as a reason “… that mobile phone use evokes feelings of social connectedness to other people and fulfills the need to belong or affiliate. This subsequently decreases the need for further affiliation and lowers concern for other people.”

The second one showed that “… smartphone use and preference for computer-mediated communication were predictors of present absence. Additionally, age was positively related to phone etiquette and preference for face-to-face communication and negatively related to smartphone use, present absence, and computer-mediated communication.”

In both cases the use of a personal device to fulfil an evolutionary-wired need resulted in a reduction of pro-social behavior in offline interactions. This has been backed by a research article published in the Journal of International Education Research that polled teacher’s beliefs on the way the use of smartphones and personal devices affect students’ behavior, psychology and learning. 

Personal Devices And Belief Systems

From a certain perspective the brain is a questing machine, smartphones and personal devices have taken over the role of television in promoting a monoculture which then becomes the backdrop against which we curate who we are, understand how the world functions, form our own personal belief system. At the same time social media allows connections to be made outside the traditional gatekeepers of information

This leads to a paradox. Within certain information bubbles and online community siloes the information presented is algorithmically personalized[2] and presented to both reflect and reinforce personal views and beliefs. This is a handy substitute for the monoculture created by TV content in the past. 

Yet, it also leads to fragmentation and isolation in ways that the TV monoculture paradigm of the past did not. Our brain soaks up information in an indiscriminate manner. Opinions merge with facts. The line between truth and falsehood is blurred when the trustworthiness of the source is not questioned or cannot be determined and the information presented already feeds existing biases. 

The same study that showed that increased smartphone use temporarily reduced pro-social behavior also showed that the feeling of connectedness that results from increased digital connections and the generally broadened perspective that’s acquired increase both empathy and pro-social behavior and intentions in the long term.  

This is further substantiated by a recent study[3] that assessed the effect of smartphone and videogame usage in increased empathy and reduced aggression in adolescents. 

How Does All This Affect Us?

If you’re looking for a direct marketing benefit here there isn’t one. At least not an obvious one. Better understanding of the digital world we all live in for at least some of the time, and its culture, leads to the better design of communication protocols and content.

Smartphones and personal devices are enabling agents. They significantly lower the access cost threshold to connections, interactions and information. Social media is an information space. The way we use it is predicated on each person’s skill, ability, intention and personal circumstances. 

As individuals we need to bear in mind a few things: 

  • Digital connections are real.
  • Digital interactions affect real people.
  • What we do online impacts what happens offline.
  • There is no generic paradigm that applies equally to everyone.

As marketers charged with developing digital real estates and creating content our focus should be on creating: 

  • Digital content that helps and enables instead of seeking the next means through which to capture the attention of our audience and manipulate them into taking action.
  • A positive end-user experience that raises the perception of the online audience we target on what we do and how we do it and, at the same time, helps them feel good.
  • A digital culture that helps those who access our content, come across our messaging or visit our website be more than they would had they not come across any of this.

‘Digital’ used to be thought of as easy. A means of achieving more with less at a lower cost than ever before. We need to rethink this approach to include the opportunity to make a difference even when our intention is to make money. 




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