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Smartphones as steady companions: device use in everyday life and the economics of attention

Heitmayer, Maximilian (2021) Smartphones as steady companions: device use in everyday life and the economics of attention. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004294


This thesis investigates smartphone use in naturally occurring contexts with a dataset comprising 200 hours of audio-visual first-person recordings from wearable cameras, and self-confrontation interview video footage (N = 41 users). The situated context in which smartphone use takes place has often been overlooked because of the technical difficulty of capturing context of use, actual action of users, and their subjective experience simultaneously. This research project contributes to filling this gap, with a detailed, mixed-methods analysis of over a thousand individual phone engagement behaviours (EB). We observe that (a) the smartphone is a key structuring element in the flow of daily activities. Participants report complex strategies on how they manage engaging with or avoiding their devices. (b) Unexpectedly, we find that the majority of EB (89%) are initiated by users, not devices; users engage with the phone roughly every five minutes regardless of the context they are in. (c) A large portion of EB seems to stem from contextual cues and an unconscious urge to pick up the device, even when there is no clear reason to do so. d) Participants are surprised about, and often unhappy with how frequently they mindlessly reach for the phone. Our in-depth analysis unveils several overlapping layers of motivations and triggers driving EB. Monitoring incoming notifications, managing time use, responding to social pressures, actually completing a task with the phone, design factors, unconscious urges, as well as the accessibility of the device, and most importantly its affordance for distraction all contribute to picking up the phone. This user drive for EB is used by providers to feed the attention economy. So far, keeping the smartphone outside of the visual field and immediate reach has appeared as the only efficient strategy to prevent overuse.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2021 Maximilian Heitmayer
Library of Congress subject classification: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
T Technology > T Technology (General)
Sets: Departments > Psychological and Behavioural Science
Supervisor: Lahlou, Saadi

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