Deep Dive #5

Aren’t we all addicted to our phones? Shouldn’t we be using technology less, not more?

Surface skim

There is some evidence to support some of the concerns that people have about the potentially negative impacts of digital technology, but it is mixed. Cause and effect may work in the opposite way to that which is often assumed, for example, it may be that already-inactive young people have more time to sit in front of screens, and people who are already depressed and anxious may use social media more. Some highly respected researchers argue that there is no evidence that technology addiction even exists in any meaningful sense and ‘digital detoxes’ are therefore a solution in search of a problem. We need to be mindful of potential harms, and we do need more research on this subject, but technology is here to stay, so we also need to focus our attention on how to harness people’s love of technology to help them to be more physically active.

Deep dive

A commonly held belief is that we are all using technology too much, that many of us are ‘addicted’ to our phones, and we could all do with a ‘digital detox’. Many parents worry about their children’s screen-time and the possible effects of this. However, the evidence relating to these concerns is not so clear cut.

Does technology and screen-time make children inactive?

Evidence about the impact of screen time on young people’s physical health is limited. There is some evidence that it may displace other activities such as exercise but the strongest evidence is for the impact of TV-watching, and there is not enough evidence to be able to say what the impact of other screens or overall screen-time might be.57 There is also evidence that it isn’t screen-based activities that directly cause physical inactivity, but rather young people who are already inactive have more time to spend in front of screens.58

Are we really ‘addicted’ to our mobile phones?

Dr David Ellis of Lancaster University and Brittany Davidson from The University of Bath found only a weak relationship between how much people think they use their smartphones and how much they actually use them, based on objective measures using data from their phones:59 people’s worries about smartphone use may be disproportionate to actual levels of potentially problematic behaviours, such as frequent and repeated checking for alerts.

Does technology addiction even really exist?

One of the most respected researchers in the field, Professor Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Research Institute has challenged the very notion of technology addiction. He argues that the term first developed as a practical joke to demonstrate how absurd the medicalisation of everyday life had become in America, and while clinics exist to treat it, there is no solid evidence that it actually exists in any sense that is comparable to substance abuse.60 A recent review of studies of children’s screen time gave rise to alarmist headlines such as, ‘One in four children have “problematic smartphone use”’ (The Guardian)61 but in the article, the study’s author acknowledges that it is too soon to call potentially problematic phone use ‘addiction’ and we don’t know yet whether these behaviours are hard to break or even harmful.

A solution in search of a problem?

Ellis and Davidson argue that there’s little scientific evidence that digital detoxes have any benefits because the underlying assumption that technology is inherently harmful is flawed: there is no good evidence that frequent use of technology and social media is a problem in itself, and based on the available evidence, we can’t tell, for example, whether people are depressed and anxious because they use social media, or whether they use social media because they are depressed and anxious. Interestingly, when time in front of a screen is measured objectively by an application or device, the severity of anxiety and depression are not associated with total smartphone usage.62

How can we harness technology in positive ways to increase physical activity?

We need to be mindful of potential harms, and we do need more research on this subject, but Angela Carlin from Ulster University argues that technology is here to stay, so despite the frustration, many parents feel with how much time their children seem to spend glued to screens, we need to recognise the potential benefits and try to harness our love of technology to increase our physical activity.


The ‘gamification’ of physical activity is one possible route. The idea is to make an otherwise unappealing activity more engaging by giving it some of the characteristics of a game. The gamification of exercise is a big area of research. Dr Kirk Plangger’s work at Kings College London gives an example of how gamification can be used to reward physical activity.11 Activity-based games, known as ‘exergames’ have also been shown to benefit physical activity63, both on consoles such as the Wii and on mobile phones. Highlighting their dual purpose as a game and as exercise helps to motivate people to keep playing over time.47

Case studies:

Can smart speakers boost our activity?

Dr Angela Carlin at the University of Ulster believes that as technology is here to stay, the most promising approach is to find ways to use it positively. Her research has explored how smart speakers like Alexa and Google Home Hub can be used to give advice and encouragement on physical activity and healthy eating. These devices offer the potential to support families in their own homes. Dr Carlin and her team have found that they are a promising method for providing educational material and helping people to develop healthier routines. Watch the project video: Can Alexa help to get us moving more?

Gamifying physical activity: motivating activity with rewards

Dr Kirk Plannger at Kings College London is investigating how “gamification” can be used to reward physical activity. His work shows how a combination of real rewards and motivational nudges can be used to keep people engaged with a physical activity programme. This model points the way to possible benefits for public health organisations to establish partnerships with the commercial sector to deliver sustainable incentive-driven programmes. Watch the project video: Improving health using gamification

Using Bluetooth technology & QR codes to incentivise physical activity

At the GetAMoveOn symposium26, Dr Eiman Kanjo presented a concept for how existing Bluetooth beacons - already in place in city centres and shopping malls - could be used to send rewards to people’s phones based on how far they walk around the space. StreetTag66 is a game based on a similar concept. Participants use their phones to scan virtual tags or QR codes positioned in a locality. The more they walk, the more tags they can scan and the more points they earn and exchange for vouchers, goods, services & experiences.

Virtual Traveller: bringing more movement into the classroom

Dr Emma Norris from the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change designed the Virtual Traveller game64 to increase physical activity in the classroom. It works by integrating physical movements and educational content in primary school maths and English lessons. The findings of an evaluation study were presented at the GetAMoveOn symposium26 and showed it was effective at both increasing children’s physical activity during lessons, and increasing their engagement.


You may also be interested in:

Deep Dive #1: What really motivates people to be more active?

Deep Dive #2: Should we really be trying to get everyone to do the recommended amounts of physical activity?

Deep Dive #3: Are technology-enabled physical activity programmes suitable for older people? Surely most older people don’t really use technology?

Deep Dive #4: Should we just give everyone an activity tracker? Would that do the trick?