Are You Hypnotized By Your Phone?
New research sheds light on mindless nature of smartphone use
Smartphone overuse is increasingly understood to be associated with poor mental health, developmental, cognitive, and social outcomes, but little is currently known on the mechanisms that underpin addiction to screens.
In addition to leading various studies on the effects of smartphones on mental health, my colleagues and I in the Culture, Mind, and Brain lab study a range of automatic influences on cognition and consciousness like placebo effects, social and cultural influences on healing, and hypnosis. Jay Olson, a PhD researcher in our lab, hypothesized that hypnosis and smartphone use may share common ‘automatic’ features. Following Olson's hunch, we hypnotized 641 students to measure their suggestibility, and also tested their smartphone addiction scores to look for a possible link. The resulting study led by Olson was published in June 2020 in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
What is hypnosis, and is there a link with smartphone use?
Broadly speaking, hypnosis refers to an atypical state of attention and consciousness in which voluntary thinking and action are bypassed by suggestions — that is, verbal, visual, or other stimuli and cues that can modulate bodily processes and sensations that we cannot typically control voluntarily. Hypnotizability refers to people’s propensity to respond to suggestions. Like extraversion or conscientiousness, hypnotizability is a relatively stable personality trait. Some people are highly hypnotizable, others less so. Olson wondered if highly hypnotizable people may also be more prone to problematic smartphone use. I wondered if people who are highly receptive to social influences (a trait hypothesized by some researchers to be linked to hypnotizability) may also be at higher risk of smartphone addiction.
What we found, and what it could mean
Our study found a small but stable correlation between hypnotizability and smartphone addiction. In other words, hypnotizability appears to moderately predict the severity of smartphone addiction.
The correlation held across many samples of the same procedure over the course of many months; it is very unlikely to be spurious.
We know that many people are addicted to their phones, in the sense of reporting significant impairments to their quality of life as a result of using their phone too much. Surprisingly little is know on why humans are so prone to smartphone addiction, and on the precise mechanisms (cognitive, affective, behavioural) that underpin this phenomenon. Hypnosis and smartphone use appear to share common features, from automatically viewing notifications, automatic and mindless scrolling and browsing, and losing track of time and the world around us. Our results do not permit us to say that smartphones are a literal form of hypnosis. We found a small correlation for which no causation can be assumed, but we can now confirm that the trait of hypnotizability is one several predictors of problematic smartphone use.
Smartphone and screen addiction are increasingly understood to present a major public health issue, especially for children and youth. There is now a clear consensus among epidemiologists that the mental health of children, adolescents and young adults in North America has considerably worsened in the past decade. The jury is out on precise causes of this alarming phenomenon.
A 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, reported a 56% increase in suicide rates among Americans aged 10 to 24 between 2007 and 2017, with a near tripling of cases among the those between age 10 and 14 (Curtin & Heron, 2019). While debates are ongoing on the potential causal link between screen tine and mental health, large surveys have identified a strong association between decreased face-to-face-interaction, increased screen time, depressive symptoms, and suicidalilty in adolescents since 2010, even after controlling for economic factors such as unemployment rates, for which there was no association with mental health (Twenge et al, 2018). A 2019 study, for example, found that each additional daily hour of social media use correlated with an increased adolescent’s risk for depressive symptoms (Boers et al, 2019). The rapid spread of misinformation and political polarization on social media are also increasingly recognized to pose a major threat on our societies (Hills, 2018).
In sum, there are many pressing questions surrounding causes and impact of smartphone uses, and avenues for intervention.
Our study may help clinicians, educators, and policy makers better understand the involuntary nature of smartphone use, and plan for protective and promotive measures (like cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness-based interventions) that target the automaticity of smartphone use.
We were also surprised — and concerned — to find that the overall rates of smartphone addiction in our Montreal student sample were very high. Our average was higher than some of the samples from Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Romania, and the midwestern United States, but similar to adolescent samples in Turkey and China. We also found gender differences: women showed higher smartphone addiction rates than men. Overall, based on the original criteria from the authors of the questionnaire, 51% of the women and 39% of the men were at high risk of phone addiction.
Overall, our findings suggest that behavioural intervention research targeting problematic smartphone use should focus on automatic and 'mindless' aspects of screen use.
Samuel Veissière, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who studies the interaction between cognition, culture, and cooperative human behavior. He teaches at McGill University.