phone, fomo

Before I began writing this article, I made a promise to myself: I swore I’d keep my smartphone out of reach until either two hours pass or I finish writing (whichever happens last).

Now, I admit that my challenge might not seem very, er, challenging. After all, I use my laptop when I write, not my phone. In the first place, I shouldn’t even be checking my phone while I’m doing something that requires thinking.

The multitasking myth

Much has been said about the effects of multitasking on productivity, and experts seem to agree that (1) you’re not supposed to do more than one thinking activity at a time and (2) switching from a mentally taxing task to a relatively mindless activity (like doodling during a boring class lecture) may actually help you focus.

Phones, however, are a different story.

From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, my phone rarely, if ever, leaves my side. I set four alarms at five-minute intervals to make sure I wake up on time. I play music while I do my morning exercises, check my mail as I prepare my breakfast, and use it to browse my social media feeds as I work on my laptop. It’s in my hands when I’m watching shows on Netflix. I end up checking my various inboxes every fifteen minutes or so to make sure I don’t miss anything important or time-sensitive. When I go jogging, my phone and my Bluetooth earbuds are my best friends. When I have to travel from one place to another to interview people or attend events, I rely on Grab and Google Maps to save my navigationally challenged self from getting lost. And so on.

It all sounds really ridiculous, I know. Thing is, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does all of that.

Media multitasking

Funnily enough, there’s actually a term for it: media multitasking.

That’s what you’re doing when you’re stealthily sending a text message to your friend while watching Captain Marvel, or when you’re racking up kills on Mobile Legends as 24 Oras plays in the background.

Recent research shows that heavy media multitaskers (assessed based on an existing media multitasking index) don’t do as well as light multitaskers when it comes to memorizing things or paying attention for more than 20 minutes. There’s also evidence that in heavy multitaskers, the anterior cingulate cortex–the part of the brain associated with decision-making, attention span, and impulse control–is smaller.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it applies in all situations. There are many other factors that could affect one’s cognitive performance. (Interestingly, some findings claim that simply having your smartphone within reach can severely mess up your cognitive abilities.)

Still, if you think about it, it does add up. Imagine for a moment that you’re a clown, juggling bowling pins in front of a live audience. A few meters away from you, another clown is throwing more pins at you, adding to the six or seven you’re already juggling. The more pins you’re juggling, the harder it is for you to keep going. That’s pretty much what your brain goes through when you’re rapidly switching from one device to the other. Your attention’s divided, you’re more likely to make a mistake, and you’re probably not even enjoying either activity.

Your phone and FOMO

The question is: Why do so many of us seem to struggle with this? Why have we reached the point where we treat our phones as indispensable extensions of ourselves?

Apparently, it all boils down to our desire to stay updated about everything — or to be more specific, our fear of missing out (FOMO).

A 2016 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) examined Canadians’ reliance on mobile gadgets. The researchers found that one in five respondents aged 18 to 29 were dependent on mobile devices. Ten percent of the survey respondents felt an “uncontrollable need” to use their devices, while seven percent experienced anxiety that only their smartphones could relieve. Shockingly, over a third of the respondents admitted that they had texted while driving at least once during the past year.

Multiple studies and research efforts have investigated the relationship between FOMO and mobile phone use. Their results pretty much say the same thing: FOMO does play a role in effectively gluing users to their smartphones.

In 2017, a group of students switched off their mobile devices and quit social media for a week for a BBC School News Report story. One reported that he felt as if he had “lost a limb” almost as soon as he switched off his phone. By the end of the experiment, another was convinced to cut back on his social media use; he felt that his week-long vacation from his gadget improved his self-control and self-confidence.


Fortunately, mobile developers have picked up on this phenomenon. They’ve also decided to do something about it.

Now, you’d think that people becoming practically inseperable from their phones is exactly what they’d want, right?

Quite the opposite, actually. The Android team, for instance, has already come up with ways to make us use our phones less. (Sounds a bit surreal, doesn’t it?)

The newest version of Android, 9.0 Pie (or just “Pie”) comes with a Digital Wellbeing tool. It’s basically a dashboard that gives you the option to set a time limit on your apps. There’s also a feature called Wind Down, which is equal parts cool and annoying: Right before your bedtime, it turns your screen gray, making it less appealing for you to browse (and hopefully more likely for you to fall asleep). As explained in a fairly recent blog post on the official Google blog, the Android team wants to give users “not just more control or a better balanced relationship with technology, but the ‘joy of missing out,’ or ‘JOMO’.”

I look at the clock, and I realize that my time is up. As I pick up my smartphone, I couldn’t help but feel… pretty awesome, actually. By putting my smartphone away, I was able to start from scratch — from research to reading to writing — and finish in two hours.

I look at my screen and sigh. I missed a call, and received four emails, a text message, nine app notifications, and three private messages.

Then again, considering how productive I was, I guess I didn’t really miss much.

Cover photo: Pexels



Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco

Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.