Sara O’Donnell

Doctoral student Sara O’Donnell is lead author on a paper that shows smartphones can be more reinforcing than food for college students.

Researchers: College Students Pick Smartphones Over Food

Published December 12, 2018

Two Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences researchers have found that college students expended more effort, time and money to obtain their smartphones than they did for food, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

“The frequency with which we use our cellphones every day is astounding, with estimates ranging from five to nine hours a day.”
Sara O’Donnell
Clinical psychology doctoral student working in the Department of Pediatrics

Evidence Shows Smartphones Are Reinforcing

Sara O’Donnell, lead author on the paper and a clinical psychology doctoral student working in pediatrics, said the results suggest that smartphones can be more reinforcing than food for college students.

“In this study, we provide evidence for the first time that smartphones are reinforcing,” she says. “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 conducted her research with co-author Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of behavioral medicine.

Frequency of Cellphone Use is ‘Astounding’

O’Donnell was interested in doing the study in order to explore whether smartphones could function as a reinforcer, the same way that food, drugs and alcohol are reinforcers.

“The frequency with which we use our cellphones every day is astounding, with estimates ranging from five to nine hours a day,” says O'Donnell, who conducts her research in Epstein’s lab.

In the study, 76 UB students ranging in age from 18 to 22 had no access to food for three hours and no access to their smartphones for two hours. During that time, they either studied or read newspapers.

After that, the students could use a computer task in order to earn the use of their smartphones or 100-calorie servings of their favorite snack food. As smartphone time and food was earned, the amount of work needed to earn either one increased.

Study Yields Surprising Results

The researchers measured smartphone reinforcement in two ways. One was a hypothetical questionnaire that asked how many minutes of smartphone use an individual would purchase at increasing prices (from $0 per minute to $1,120 per minute).

The other was a behavioral index of reinforcement that measured the amount of work (i.e., the number of mouse button clicks) an individual would expend to use their phone, where the amount of clicks needed to use the phone increases over time.

The more hypothetical money and work the students were willing to spend to be able to use their smartphones reflected a higher reinforcing value, according to O’Donnell.

“We were very surprised by the results,” she says. “We knew that students would be motivated to gain access to their phones, but we were surprised that despite modest food deprivation, smartphone reinforcement far exceeded food reinforcement across both methodologies.”

She added that while the study wasn’t geared toward assessing how these behaviors might be involved in the phenomenon of smartphone addiction, she said the results do suggest that smartphones are highly reinforcing.

“Research is just beginning to investigate the possibility that smartphone addiction exists,” O’Donnell says. “While reinforcing value does not equate to addiction, it seems likely that if smartphone addiction becomes a valid diagnosis, those individuals would have high smartphone reinforcement, just as individuals with alcohol use disorders have high alcohol reinforcement.”