Talking about stress? Talk about smartphones

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I confess that for many years in my Intro Psych course I didn’t cover sleep or stress. In retrospect, I’m sorry that I didn’t use that opportunity to give those students that information they could use to live better lives. While I can’t go back and change the past, I can make sure that the students I have today – and hopefully, my students’ families and friends – have this information.  

The cover story to the March 2017 Monitor on Psychology is on “how smartphones are affecting our health and well-being, and points the way toward taking back control.” The article cites 2015 data from the Pew Research Center that said 72% of U.S. adults have a smartphone (Weir, 2017). In 2016, that number jumped to 77%. If you’re between 18 and 29, 92% of your cohort has one. For those of us 50 to 64, 74% of our peers have one – last year, only 59% of people in this age group owned a smartphone (Smith, 2017).

Ask your students to raise their hands if they own a smartphone. After almost all of the hands go up, ask students to take a couple minutes to jot down a few ways in which their phones help them and a few ways in which their phones interfere with their lives. Ask students to share their lists in pairs or small groups, adding other ideas as they come up. Ask groups to identify one student as the recorder. After a few minutes of discussion, starting on one side of the room, ask the recorder from each group to share one benefit their group identified. If it was a benefit other groups had on their list, they should cross it off. List the benefits on the board/computer screen. Repeat this process for the ways smartphones interfere with their lives.

One of the interferences cited in the article is lack of sleep – due to blue light disrupting the circadian rhythm, due to getting worked up reading email and text messages before bed, due to waking up to answer phone calls or respond to text messages. Lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems, including making it harder to cope with stress or poorer school or work performance thus upping stress levels.

As a clicker question, ask students:

Imagine that you didn’t have your phone for an hour. How freaked out would you be?

  1. I’d be fine.
  2. A little nervous.
  3. Pretty anxious.
  4. Totally freaked out.

As a research methods booster, describe Nancy Cheever, Larry Rosen, and colleagues’ quasi-experiment (2014) described in the Monitor article. They asked participants to estimate how much time they spent each day on their phones doing various activities, e.g., “send and receive email,” “play video games.” I’m not sure how good any of us are at making such estimates. Given that the range of responses they got was from 1 hour a day to 64.5 (?!) hours a day, I’m even less confident in our ability to make such ratings. (If time allows, give students a few minutes to brainstorm other ways phone usage could be estimated or tracked.) The researchers soldiered on and divided participants into three groups: low smartphone usage (1 to 7 hours a day), moderate usage (7,5 to 16.5 hours a day), and heavy usage (17 or more hours a day). And then the researchers took away the participants’ phones. Participants completed the State/Trait Anxiety Inventory after 10 minutes, after 35 minutes, and after 60 minutes. The low usage participants were fine the entire time. The moderate users were fine after 10 minutes, but by 35 minutes they were a little anxious, and they were still just as anxious after an hour. The high users though were already anxious by the 10-minute mark, and their anxiety continued to climb through 35 minutes and was even higher by 60 minutes.

Ask students to take a look at the benefits and interference lists you have on the board/screen, and invite students to hypothesize why the heavy smartphone users would be so freaked out.  

Part of what may be driving that anxiety is FOMO – a fear of missing out. “What are my friends texting me? Are they thinking I’m mad at them because I’m not responding? What’s happening on Facebook? On Instagram? On Twitter? On Snapchat?” That gives you a good opportunity to revisit operant conditioning. The Monitor article notes that checking one’s phone provides instant reinforcement. If you check your phone to relieve anxiety, phone-checking is negatively reinforced. If you check your phone to see a loving text message from your sweetie, then your phone-checking is positively reinforced.

The stress chapter in your Intro Psych textbook likely talks about the importance of feeling like we have control over our lives. Have our smartphones taken over control? Notifications tell us to look now (discriminative stimulus – “If you look now, I’ll reinforce your looking behavior with a new text message, information about who liked your most recent Facebook status update, or that you have a new life in that game that you started playing”). Can we resist the buzz, the blinking lights, the special text notification sound we assigned to our new love?

Constantly ducking into our phones takes time and cognitive energy. If we’re reading, writing, or studying, every time we check the latest buzz, we take our minds away from what we’re doing. When we are done with the phone, it takes time to figure out what we had been doing and refocus… only for another buzz to take us away. While this may interfere with our productivity, greatly increasing how long it takes to do what we need to do, at least it’s not going to kill us.

But when we engage in exactly that same behavior when driving, it may very well kill us or cause us to kill someone else. “A newly released survey shows that cell phone use is the greatest cause of distracted driving in Washington state and that fatalities from distracted driving have increased dramatically over a one-year period” (KOMO Staff, 2017). This is not just a Washington state problem. “After steady declines over the last four decades, highway fatalities last year [2015] recorded the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years. And the numbers so far this year are even worse. In the first six months of 2016, highway deaths jumped 10.4 percent to 17,775, from the comparable period of 2015” (Boudette, 2016).

Also, as a bonus, if a driver is sleep deprived because of the phone interrupting their sleep, they don’t need to check a phone while driving to get killed. They can fall asleep while driving.

Since we know that dramatic stories or footage are a more powerful persuasive tool than mere statistics, here are some car crashes. The view out the car window is on the left, and the view of the driver is on the right. Point out to students how little time it takes for a crash to happen.

Video Link : 1947

While the video shows drivers looking at their phones instead of the road, the distracted driving research makes it clear that mentally doing something else while driving, like talking on the phone, is just as dangerous. If your mind is not on driving, you’re at risk of crashing.

Crashing. Not having an accident, but crashing. An accident makes it sound like something that could not be avoided, after all, accidents happen. Crashes, however, can be avoided. This change in terminology, recommended by the National Traffic Safety Administration, is to help drivers take more responsibility for the havoc they can cause (Richel, 2016). I don’t know that there are any data to support this, but here’s a blog post by a linguist that explains why it should make a difference.

Conclude this activity by asking students to take a minute to reflect on what they can do to regain control from their phones. Ask students to share in pairs or small groups, then ask volunteers to share some of their suggestions.

Here are seven suggestions from the Monitor on Psychology article.

  1. “Make choices.” Decide what you are going to use your phone for. I know several people who have uninstalled the Facebook app from their phones specifically because it was sucking up too much of their time.
  2. “Retrain yourself.” Gradually wean yourself off habitual phone-checking. Don’t look at it first thing in the morning or the last thing at night.
  3. “Set expectations.” Let everyone know that you’re not going to respond to their text message or email immediately. Assure them that it’s about you, not about them.
  4. “Silence notifications.” If you don’t need to know NOW, turn off the notifications. Push notifications for my work email are turned off between 6pm and 8am and all day on the weekend. I made that change the night I was at a play and during intermission I was reading work email. I thought, “What am I doing?!” I changed the notifications then and there.
  5. “Protect sleep.” My phone automatically sets itself to silent between 9pm and 8am. When I still couldn’t resist the urge to check it when I woke up in the middle of the night, I started leaving it in a different room.
  6. “Be active.” When on social media, participate. That’s more likely to make us feel connected to others.
  7. “And, of course, don’t text/email/call and drive.” If you can’t stay off your phone, lock it in the trunk.


Boudette, N. E. (2016, November 15). Biggest spike in traffic deaths in 50 years? Blame apps. Retrieved from

Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Chavez, A. (2014). Out of sight is not out of mind: The impact of restricting wireless mobile device use on anxiety lev.... Computers in Human Behavior, 37, 290-297. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.002

KOMO Staff. (2017, February 13). New survey: Distracted driving deaths up 32 percent; cell phone use a key factor. Retrieved from

Richtel, M. (2016, May 22). It's no accident: Advocates want to speak of car 'crashes' instead. Retrieved from

Smith, A. (2017, January 12). Record shares of Americans now own smartphones, have home broadband. Retrieved from

Weir, K. (2017, March). (Dis)Connected. APA Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved from

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.