Ryerson study explores the depths of BlackBerry addiction

A BlackBerry device can turn users into distracted, anti-social obsessives who could put the safety of others or themselves at risk, a research study from Ryerson University warns.

Conducted by the Toronto-based organization’s School of Information Technology Management, the study is based on in-depth interviews with users who admitted to using their BlackBerries while walking, riding bicycles or driving. They also confessed to checking messages while in meetings or public settings. Some use it as an alarm clock, reading e-mail the moment they wake up and on weekends or outside of office hours.

Associate professor Catherine Middleton said the study grew out of a larger project funded by Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada to investigate how Canadians use broadband. Over time, she said, it became obvious that one of the applications that was most important to users was mobile Internet access.

“The thing that’s really interesting is that people really strongly believe we need broadband but BlackBerries manage to be incredibly useful without using a lot of it,” she said. “It sort of flies in the face of people who say we should build these huge, honking networks.”

The Ryerson study only looked at the usage patterns of 13 respondents, which spanned CEOs to middle managers and entry-level workers, but Middleton said she was more interested in specific examples than broad statistics.

“We felt that the story we were able to tell was a story that was pretty believable in terms of identifying behaviours,” she said. “The intent is not to generalize that every BlackBerry user has the same patterns.”

Seema Esteves, president of BlackBerry training firm Circul Technology in Mississauga, Ont., said a lot of organizations deploy the devices without properly taking the impact of user behaviour into account.

“A lot of people view it as a cell phone, as a Palm — they think they don’t need training. They just hand this box to their users and everyone’s excited. Then they get mad at it,” said Esteves, who is also the author of Maximizing Your BlackBerry. “This is a huge investment, they’re not seeing the ROI. That’s why my class is a two-hour, hands-on training exercise.”

Ryerson did talk to a few users who owned other devices, Middleton said, but there were obvious differences.

“The behaviours are similar, but the thing about the BlackBerry, at least if you are in North America, is there is an expectation that if you have one you’re very available. I don’t think the same expectation exists if you have a Treo.”

Although Research in Motion, which makes the BlackBerry, has traditionally aimed at business users, the more recent Pearl version is marketed to consumers. Middleton said it’s possible that behaviour patterns will be different as a result. “I don’t know if people are buying Pearls because they want the e-mail functionality or because it’s a nice-looking phone,” she said.

On Wednesday, RIM and T-Mobile in the U.S. announced a new version of the Pearl, which would offer a white design instead of the traditional dark colours of the BlackBerry.

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