Smartphones and social relationships. Starting by motivation to regain control

13 June 2019

Gabriele Morandin, Associate Dean for Accreditations and Quality Services of BBS and Marcello Russo, Co-director of the Master in HR & Organization of BBS, conducted together with Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, Professor of Management at the University of Quebec in Montreal, a research appeared on Harvard Business Review dedicated to the behavioral habits of smartphone owners and based on the public comments of some LinkedIn users.

If You Want to Use Your Phone Less, First Figure Out Why

We live in a busy world. We use our smartphone to answer emails, calls, and instant messages at all times of the day: in business meetings, at lunches, while waiting for the bus, queuing at the grocery store, and even during special occasions and family gatherings. Similar scenes may be observed in local parks where parents often push the swing with one hand and scroll through their phones with the other, occasionally resurfacing to give their kids a smile.

This behavior reflects what research has already shown about how smartphones affect our lives. On one hand, these devices give us greater discretion over when and where to work and how we stay connected with others. On the other hand, this constant connection extends the length of our workdays and reduces our ability to detach, potentially harming our work engagement as well as our time off and productivity. Many studies to date focus on these adverse consequences, questioning whether we are in control of our devices or are controlled by them.

Our research, however, seeks to examine this phenomenon from a different angle. Rather than focusing on the consequences of excessive smartphone use, we aimed to find out if employees actually want to change addictive habits. We asked: Do employees seek to control the amount of time spent on their smartphones? If they do, what strategies do they use, and with what specific goals in mind?

To address these questions, we analyzed a corpus of public comments that LinkedIn users had written in response to an article describing the risks of excessive smartphone use in social interactions. The article challenges readers to avoid using their smartphones in the presence of others for 21 consecutive days (the time needed to develop a new habit). In just a few months, the post received more than 168,000 views, 2,900 likes, and 941 comments. Through these comments, we aimed to identify behavioral patterns surrounding smartphone usage, as well as strategies people use to reduce the time spent on their smartphones and the motivations driving those strategies.

We found that individuals consciously disconnected from their smartphones for different reasons, and while having a strategy to limit your smartphone use matters, making sure that strategy aligns with your values and motivations (and with those of important stakeholders in and outside of your work) is key to successfully changing your behavior. For example, if your motivation is to increase focused time at work, then scheduling phone free hours will work better for you than someone whose motivation is to improve social interactions. Someone with the latter motivation may benefit more from a strategy like turning off push notifications in public.

Given this discovery, we decided to classify the various strategies we discovered into four categories based on the four main motivations that appeared throughout our research:

Motivation #1: Improving Work or Home Role Performance
About 25% of the 941 commentators aimed to reduce the time spent on their phones in order to enhance their performance in a certain role, whether it be that of an employee, a spouse, or a parent. Some people wished, for example, to improve their focus at work while others wished to be more present at home and participate more actively in family activities. Their strategies for doing so ranged in their degree of difficulty.

Strategies included:

  • Not purchasing a mobile phone at all.
  • Not activating cellular data.
  • Putting the phone on silent mode during meetings.
  • Keeping the phone out of sight.

What strategy works the best?
The majority of people who commented on the effectiveness of their strategies said that keeping their phones out of sight provided them with the greatest results. It allowed them to increase situational awareness, to experience greater quietness in tending to their work tasks, and to attend meetings with a sharper focus and attention on their clients and coworkers.


Motivation #2: Establishing a Personal Digital Philosophy
About 30% of commentators wanted to reflect on and implement a personal digital philosophy about the role that technology should play in their lives. Interestingly, several people in this group had been inspired to disconnect by an unintended event such as when their phone broke, lost signal, or ran out of battery. These events served as major turning points that inspired deep reflection.

Many strategies in this category included symbolic decisions:

  • Purchasing a simple phone with basic features.
  • Using only the landline phone while at work.
  • Introducing strict rules so as to set the right example for colleagues, partners, or children.

What strategy works the best?
The most mentioned strategy in this category was the last one. Setting rules had a tremendous impact for this group. The rules people came up with ranged from no smartphone “outside of business hours” to “no phones at the dinner table.” As one commentator said, “My cellphone is a helpful business tool — I control it, it does not control me.”


Motivation #3: Minimizing Undesirable Social Behaviors
Around another 25% wanted to avoid appearing rude in interpersonal relationships and limit the embarrassment of being publicly interrupted or distracted by their phones.

Strategies included:

  • Accessing emails through a web browser rather through an email application.
    This strategy mimics the 20-second rule suggested by Shaun Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage as an effective way to fight negative habits by making a temptation less accessible. Checking emails through the web browser is an operation that requires entering one’s login and passwords and takes more than 20 seconds. Such a delay may discourage smartphone users from compulsively checking their emails.)
  • Disabling push notifications to avoid being automatically notified of every message.
  • Introducing penalties (i.e. paying for an extra round of drinks) if somebody is caught on their phone during social gatherings. This strategy was more strongly diffused among younger people.

What strategy works the best?
No particular strategy was favored in this category. However, disabling push notifications to avoid interruptions during business or social interactions was described as very effective. Commentators claimed that doing so increased their sense of control over their smartphones. In addition, commentators said the last strategy — introducing penalties for smartphone use — is a good way to generate fun and positive emotions among colleagues and friends.


Motivation #4: Putting Family and Interpersonal Relationships First
A little less than 20% of commentators wanted to avoid losing the affection of friends, family, and significant others as a result of their smartphone habits. Many people in this group were inspired to limit their phone usage in response to cues from family members — such as young children who wanted their parents to play with them rather than with their phones, or complaints from partners about the quality of time spent with their significant others. One person commented, “I have been accused several times of being married to my phone and not paying attention to others around me.”

Exemplary strategies to achieve this goal included:

  • Tracking personal connectivity behaviors in order to develop greater self-awareness around smartphone usage.
  • Regularly reminding yourself what the most important priorities in life are, who needs the most attention in social interactions, and what the risks associated with uncontrolled usage are. Then, using these reminders as motivations.
  • Sharing your thoughts surrounding smartphone usage with partners/teams, and looking for the most effective strategy together.

What strategy works the best?
Commentators had divergent opinions about which strategies could be most effective in this category. Tracking their personal connectivity behaviors was considered an effective way to gain greater self-awareness, which was then used as motivation to change unwanted behaviors. Similarly, reminding themselves of their life priorities was particularly helpful to commentators with a salient family identity. For example, one person wrote: “My employer does not allow cell phones. […] Then I realized, if I can do this for my employer, will I do it for my sons?”


Using smartphones is an easy thing to do but this does not mean that controlling them is also easy. The above strategies were taken from one sample of people, but are simple behavioral changes that reap enormous benefits. Although not every strategy will work for every person, finding out which is right for you is the first step towards successfully limiting your phone use. If this is a goal you have in mind, first ask yourself what the reasons driving your decision are — and then consider the best way forward.


Read here the integral research:
Breaking out from constant connectivity: Agentic regulation of smartphone use


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