Why You're So Tempted to Check Your Phone During Sex

You're hardwired to want to respond to notifications on your phone—even during sex. We asked an expert to explain why.

May 16 2016, 7:10pm

Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta via Stocksy

Collectively, Americans check their phones over eight billion times a daywhile driving, at the movies, and even during sex. A new study out of the University of Virginia suggests that the constant interruptions might be causing a level of increased hyperactivity and inattention that's usually associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD have symptoms that include being easily distracted and the inability to focus. This state of restlessness and lowered productivity is also found in people who receive constant notifications on their phones.

"An emerging body of literature shows that people often attend immediately to notifications received on their phones," the study says. "Phones' power to interrupt their users is no doubt in part due to their omnipresence throughout our daily activities."

In the study, researchers asked participants, all undergraduate students, to keep all notifications and alerts on their phones turned on for one week, always keeping their phones within reach. Later, they were instructed to do the opposite—keep alerts off and phones away.

The results showed higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity when people were on their phones, which in turn "predicted lower productivity and psychological well-being," according to the study.

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While the study does not suggest that phone interruptions cause ADHD, the authors find that "being constantly interrupted by alerts and notifications may be be contributing towards an increasingly problematic deficit of attention in our digitally connected society."

Any interruption—cell phone or otherwise—can lead to decreased attention spans, points out Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center. But the fact that the interruptions we receive on our phones are inherently social is what makes them so distracting.

"Interruptions from a phone are a proxy for social interaction," Rutledge says. "In other words, every one of them has an implication for some kind of potential social contact. Since we are by nature hardwired to respond to things socially over all else, that's a pretty compelling invitation."

And yet research shows that our phones are so much a part of our lives that we continue to check and respond to them even during actual, real-life social interactions. According to a 2013 mobile consumer habits study by Harris Interactive, 20 percent of people aged 18-34 check their phones during sex. And nearly 75 percent of the respondents said they were within five feet of their smartphones at all times.

More comprehensive past studies have found similar results to the UVA research. A 2014 study of over 7,000 Chinese teenagers showed a correlation between cell phone use and inattention. The study also found that decreasing phone use to under an hour a day increased focus. A 2015 study found that increased time on our phones can lead to temporary "inattentional deafness," where users become so distracted by visual stimuli that they do not hear what is going on around them.

Louis C.K. recently went on CONAN and said he had given up the internet—that all the time he spent on his phone was taking away from the attention he wanted to give to his kids. With his newly deepened focus, he read Pride and Prejudice on vacation.

"I have a terrible time with people trying to villianize technology rather than say[ing], 'Here's evidence that people need to pay attention to how they're using their phones,'" says Rutledge. "We have this powerful tool that we can't let run our lives. We have to start making choices. We have to recognize how humans work as well as how our phones work."