Setting smartphone to silent can backfire, leads people to check device even more

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Excessive smartphone use is a distinctly 21st century issue, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic. Countless people spend their days endlessly scrolling from one social media feed or app to the next. Many argue there’s an easy solution: just turn the phone off or place it on silent mode.

Now, however, researchers from Penn State find that this approach can actually backfire for certain people. Study authors report people checked their phones more often when their devices were in silent mode. Notably, participants who scored high in “fear of missing out” and “need to belong” personality tests checked their phones the most after placing them on silent. In some cases, these individuals stayed on their phones for longer as well.

All in all, the research team says their work suggests there is no “one size fits all” solution to overcoming the growing societal problem of smartphone distraction.

“The general, commonsensical approach to overcoming addiction or any kind of substance overuse or dependency is by cutting back on that substance,” says S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, in a university release.

“The industry approach to curbing smartphone overuse has generally been to try and figure out ways to cut off your access to phone, or to reduce the number of notifications or to give you the option of turning off the sound. While these are commonsensical approaches, we really do not know if they are psychologically effective. This seems to be one of those instances when cutting back can actually backfire or boomerang.”

Phone addiction doubles when devices are on silent!

This work is based on data collected from the screen time monitoring tool of 138 iPhone users. Researchers focused on how two distinct psychological traits may influence how people act in response to placing their phones on either silence or vibrate. More specifically, study authors analyzed people who tend to be especially preoccupied about gathering information from others (fear of missing out, or FOMO), and people with a strong desire to maintain interpersonal relationships (need to belong).

Incredibly, in comparison to audio-alert or vibrate modes, each participant checked their phones more often when it was in silent mode. When the phone’s sound and vibration was on, the groups checked their devices 52.9 times daily on average. When their phones were silent, that average rate nearly doubled to 98.2 times a day.

According to Mengqi Liao, a doctoral student in mass communication and the study’s first author, participants also answered various questions to help identify those living with both FOMO and need-to-belong psychological traits.

For instance, people with FOMO usually answered yes to questions pertaining to their concern for what other people are doing, including “do you get worried when you find out friends are having fun without you?” and “do you get anxious not knowing what their friends are up to?”

Meanwhile, those with need-to-belong traits were more likely to agree with statements like “you need other people to like you” and “you feel bad when people don’t accept you.”

Is FOMO worse than needing to belong?

Volunteers identified as having high levels of FOMO checked their phones roughly 50 times daily when their device was on vibrate. In silent mode, those same people checked their phones about 120 times daily. Those with FOMO also tended to keep scrolling significantly longer if their phones were in silent mode.

Participants with high levels of the need-to-belong trait actually didn’t check their phones more in silent mode. However, they did stay on their phones longer if the devices were on either silent or vibration-only mode.

“Imagine, in class, the instructor tells the students to turn off their phones, we think that now everyone is paying attention to the instructor,” Prof. Sundar explains. “But, what our research is the opposite, in that they are preoccupied thinking about all the things that they’re missing, so it might be even more distracting.”

At the end of the day, smartphone use habits come down to the individual. Researchers conclude the first step toward fostering healthier tech habits for everyone is understanding that different people react to apps, notifications, and various tech features differently.

“It might be important to personalize how notifications are presented to users based on their individual differences, for example, in this case, basing it on their level of fear of missing out and the level of their need to belong, which are not hard to measure nowadays,” Liao concludes. “Another thing developers should explore is the use of, for example, social media and online entertainment to really listen to what are the notifications that that person just cannot miss and ones they probably don’t mind missing.”

The findings appear in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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John Anderer

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  1. In animal studies, cellphone-type radiation was found to stimulate dopamine receptors. Kind of like opiates do.
    One question not addressed is how much of the radiation does the cell phone user absorb a) when turning on the phone only to check on activity, vs. b) having the phone on all the time.
    Another fun fact: in a recent tally of biological studies on cell phone frequencies since 1990 (H.Lai, 2022, 82% showed biological effects. The most frequently replicated: oxidative stress/free radical formation, DNA damage/genetic effects, and neurological effects.

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