When deprived of food and smartphones, college students work harder to get their phones back

A new study provides evidence that smartphones can be more reinforcing than food for college students. The findings appear in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

“The frequency with which we use our cell phones every day is astounding, with estimates ranging from 5 to 9 hours per day,” said study author Sara O’Donnell of the University at Buffalo.

“I was interested in exploring whether smartphones could be conceptualized as a reinforcing behavior, using the methods typically used to study food, drug, and alcohol reinforcement. I was also interested in comparing the reinforcing value of smartphones to food, which is a reinforcer that is known to strongly motivate behavior.”

In the study, 76 college students were deprived of food for three hours and deprived of their smartphones for two hours while they studied. They were then allowed to use a computerized game, which was similar to a slot machine, to earn time to use their smartphones or 100-calorie portions of snack food.

The students could spend as much time as they wanted to earn points towards smartphone use or food. Once they decided they were finished, the students were given the appropriate amount of food and phone time. The participants then completed another hour of studying without their phone or food.

The researchers found that the students tended to be more motivated to work towards gaining smartphone time than food.

“In this study, we provide evidence for the first time that smartphones are reinforcing. We also found that when deprived of both food and smartphones, students were much more motivated to work for time to use their smartphone, and were willing to part with more hypothetical money to gain access to their phone,” O’Donnell told PsyPost.

“This shows that despite modest food and smartphone deprivation, smartphones were more reinforcing than food. Lastly, we compared self-reported texting usage to individual’s cell phone bills, and found people are largely unable to accurately estimate this behavior.”

Like all research, the study has limitations.

“The results we found may be different if the deprivation periods for food and smartphones were different. For example, how many hours of food deprivation would have to be experienced before people started preferring food over their smartphones? Additionally, while students were deprived of food for at least three hours, they only reported moderate hunger,” O’Donnell explained.

Future research could also address if the findings generalize to other age groups.

“It is hard to make comparisons between two different reinforcers like food and smartphones. One is needed for our survival, and one is a daily habit and luxury that people have only had access to within the past ~20 years,” O’Donnell added.

“People are growing more aware of the negative outcomes associated with higher frequency cell phone use in our social lives, how we process news media, and other psychosocial outcomes. The results of this study confirm what many people already know: smartphones are powerful motivators of behavior.”

The study, “Smartphones are more reinforcing than food for students“, was authored by Sara O’Donnell and Leonard H. Epstein.