When did you last check your smartphone?

Smartphone users soon find themselves obsessively checking for email, social media and news, says a team at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT and Intel Labs.

A study of users in the US and Finland found that a typical checking lasts less than 30 seconds, and involves no more than opening the screen lock and accessing a single application.

The researchers say they were surprised – I wouldn’t have been – to find users checking away madly throughout their waking hours. Many do little else with their smartphones.

Checkings aren’t random, they say, but occur in a small number of contexts, such as reading email when commuting or checking news while bored. Users didn’t regard checking as an addiction, but did own up to overuse.

“By making interesting content quickly accessible, developers are on the one hand making the device more useful – but, on the other hand, the habits that emerge essentially conquer more and more of a person’s free time,” says Tye Rattenbury, formerly of Intel Labs.

And the team warns that checking could become more and more of an obsession as developers give users more incentives to do it.

In one experiment, when a phone’s contact book application was augmented with real-time information about contacts’ whereabouts and doings, users started repeatedly checking the application.

“What concerns us here is that if your habitual response to, say, boredom, is that you pick up the phone to find interesting stimuli, you will be systematically distracted from the more important things happening around you,” says Antti Oulasvirta of HIIT.