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Why Your Smartphone is Trying to Kill You — And What You Can Do to Stop It

Why Your Smartphone is Trying to Kill You -- And What You Can Do to Stop ItYour smartphone — whether it be an iPhone or an Android device — is trying to kill you.

It’s not doing it in any kind of obvious way. There’s no “Murder My Owner” app that it downloads in the middle of the night, and then electrocutes you any time you reach for it (or failed to check it in the last 5 minutes).

No, it’s far more subtle — and effective. Because your smartphone is trying to kill you by creating hard-to-break habits of checking it. Even while you’re doing life-and-death kinds of things, like driving a two-ton vehicle at 65 MPH down an interstate.

That’s the claim being made by Leon Neyfakh in yesterday’s Boston Globe. And the culprit isn’t our smartphones per se, but rather the new, intractable habits they’re creating in us — oftentimes without our conscious or premeditated knowledge:

In this light, the deadly phenomenon of texting and driving is just one manifestation of a broader affliction facing society: Our phones have effectively programmed us with new habits, including a powerful urge to pull them out when we’re not supposed to.

That urge — to check our e-mail, to glance at Facebook, to see who just texted us — can be as intense when we’re standing in line or at dinner with our families as it is when we’re driving a car. But it’s only in a car that resisting it becomes a matter of life and death.

In order to fight the problem, we need to understand how that urge works — and acknowledge that merely telling people texting and driving is dangerous, and punishing them for doing it, might not be enough.

Indeed. If smartphones have now created everyday habits in our lives, simply telling people to stop doing it isn’t going to be very effective. Because habits short-circuit our rational logic centers of the brain. They’re created specifically so we can do a certain behavior, every day, without even thinking about it.

So if we’re not really consciously thinking about it when we’re doing it — pulling out our phones, checking our texts and Facebook updates — then telling people to just stop is likely to be as effective as First Lady Nancy Regan’s effort to get people to quit doing drugs by telling them, “Just Say No.”

Most people simply can’t break a habit through willpower alone. It usually requires additional effort — by friends, family, and even creating new habits that compete with the old ones (and can’t be performed together).

Stopping Your Smartphone from Killing You

So here are a few ways you can curb the habit of checking your smartphone in situations where it can either be dangerous (e.g., while driving), or disadvantageous (e.g., in social situations where you’re the only one doing it).

Habits are often formed by triggers — something that reinforces your engaging in a specific behavior. Most habits have triggers and smartphones are no exception.

1. Turn off the trigger.

You can reduce your phone’s triggering behavior — alerts — by simply disabling 99 percent of the notifications your phone is trying to alert you to. For instance, do you really need to know every time one of your Facebook friends updates their status? Of course not. If it’s interrupting your life’s flow (rather than enhancing it), turn it off.

2. Make the habit more inaccessible.

If the smartphone triggers your checking behavior, one way to reduce the habit of checking it is to simply make the phone more inaccessible to you in certain situations. While driving, for instance, put the phone in your purse and put your purse in the backseat, farthest away from the driver’s seat. Accessible in case of an emergency, but for everyday use, it is out of reach. If you don’t carry a purse, put it in a coat or jacket pocket, and then put the jacket on the back seat.

You may not even need to keep it so far away from you. For instance, I keep my phone in my front pocket. While that seems accessible, it’s awkward to try and pull it out while I’m driving, so I never do.

This works with friends too. If you keep your phone in your purse, and then put your purse over your chairback, it’s fairly inaccessible, allowing you to focus on the people right in front of you.

3. Make a pact with friends & family.

There’s no better way to help break a habit than to have your friends and family all agree to the same rules of engagement when together. In this case, it may be to agree that until the meal is over, all phones are kept in their purses or pockets — none on the table.

If everyone agrees to it, then nobody will feel as great a need to check their own phone. It’s a type of herd mentality — peer pressure, if you will — that is actually beneficial in situations such as this.

4. Reinforce yourself with positives — and negatives.

Psychological research over the decades have shown that positive rewards trump negative punishment every time. So reward yourself each time you engage in the new habit-breaking behavior — which could be simply allowing yourself to check your phone once done driving, or once done the social interaction.

But if that’s not enough, consider adding a negative reward — such as having your friends call you out for it if you check your phone while hanging out with them. This is something you’ll have to ask them to do for you, since most people don’t feel comfortable shaming a friend on their own.


I half-jokingly began this article suggesting your smartphone is trying to kill you. But it’s not a joke — each year, hundreds of people are dying due directly to trying to operate their smartphone and their car at the same time. This number will only rise until people realize they can’t do both nearly as well as they believe they can.

You can break the habit of checking your smartphone all the time. But first you must recognize there’s a good reason to break this habit — to save your life or that of another person who’s in the car next to you.


Read the full article: Why you can’t stop checking your phone

Why Your Smartphone is Trying to Kill You — And What You Can Do to Stop It

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Why Your Smartphone is Trying to Kill You — And What You Can Do to Stop It. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Oct 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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