Smartphones are the 'digital truth serum', according to new study

  • People are more likely to reveal intimate information about themselves via their smartphones than a desktop PC
  • This is according to a study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania
  • One of the reasons for this is that we tend to hold emotional associations with our smartphones

People spend on average three hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day, according to an article by the Guardian that reported on research from RescueTime, one of several apps for iOS and Android created to monitor phone use.

For many of us, our entire lives revolve around our smartphones. According to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the device you use to communicate may actually affect the extent to which you are willing to disclose intimate or personal information about yourself to others.

The new study, published in the Journal of Marketing, reveals that desktop computers come second to smartphones, and the reasons are particularly interesting.

A sense of familiarity

The multi-functionality of our smartphones has opened infinite doors to learning and connectivity. But just why these devices can have such an interesting effect on our behaviour and persuade us to reveal certain types of sensitive information is twofold, explains co-author of the study Shiri Melumad.

"One, stemming from the unique form characteristics of phones, and the second from the emotional associations that [people] tend to hold with their device."

In the published paper, Melumad explains that due to the small size of smartphones, viewing and creating content are generally harder than doing so on a desktop computer.

As a result, when responding on a smartphone, for instance, we have "a tendency to narrowly focus attention on the disclosure task at hand due to the relative difficulty of generating content on the smaller device". Consequently, we are less aware of external factors that would usually impede self-disclosure, such as concerns regarding what others could potentially do with the information.

The second reason, the researcher explains, is that our smartphones bring us feelings of comfort and familiarity. "Because our smartphones are with us all of the time and perform so many vital functions in our lives, they often serve as 'adult pacifiers' that bring feelings of comfort to their owners," Melumad says.

"When writing on our phones, we tend to feel that we are in a comfortable 'safe zone'. As a consequence, we are more willing to open up about ourselves."

To reach their conclusion of smartphone-generated content being more self-disclosing than a desktop or laptop computer, the researchers used automated natural language processing tools, as well as human judgements of self-disclosure.

The study, which included analysing thousands of social media posts and online reviews, responses to web ads and controlled laboratory studies, further explains that when examining the tweets and reviews composed on smartphones, it was found more likely to be written from the first-person perspective. The same goes for disclosing negative emotions and discussing the user's private family and friends.

Since the study had a consumer and marketing-focused approach, it also reveals that when consumers receive an online ad that requests personal information, such as a phone number, users are more likely to provide it over their smartphone than on their desktop or laptop computer.

Impact of smartphones on human health and life

Smartphones have become an inherent part of human life and, apart from research such as the above, it has also sparked plenty of research on its direct effects on human health. Digital eye strain, neck pain and headaches are some of the many ways in which our smartphones have a negative effect on our health.

One study looked at how smartphone use promotes lazy thinking and makes users less inclined to use their brain, reported HealthDay.

Another study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, has found that "problematic" smartphone use is tied to a variety of mental health problems, as well as lower grades and more sexual partners.

If you have trouble unplugging and feel like you may have a smartphone addiction, taking a bit of a "digital detox" could do wonders for your mental well-being and, in some cases, can even be life-changing.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
27% - 9950 votes
73% - 26266 votes