9. Why we set up Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass is an ongoing, self-funded research project by Revealing Reality.

The goal of the project is to gather and share detailed evidence about the ways people use their smartphones and to prompt discussion and consideration of the consequences.

We aim to capture and explore people’s behaviour at a unique moment in time, when smartphones have recently transformed our lives and the way we live them, and to create a resource that we and others can build on over time in the development of policy or resources, or simply as a source of evidence.

Through the Looking Glass is informed by commissioned research Revealing Reality has done – and continues to do – into consumption of and attitudes towards media and news, use of technology and the interplay between them.

These valuable and exciting projects, for a range of clients including government departments, public bodies, regulators, content providers and private sector organisations, have given us an opportunity to develop expertise in this space, and to identify areas we believe would benefit from further exploration – which led to the decision to establish this project ourselves.

In particular, we felt research was needed that focused more specifically on how the smartphone – the device itself – shaped behaviour and attitudes, rather than just the content or the platforms that it allowed access to.

We also thought it was important to explore whether smartphones were helping – or hindering – people equally.

Carrying out a self-funded project has allowed us to test and develop innovative research methods, techniques and technology, which we have been able to carry across into other projects.

This ideas in this report have been developed using Wave 1 of our Through the Looking Glass research.  

Having done research for Ofcom, the Children’s Commissioner, the Information Commissioner’s Office and others on children’s use of and attitudes towards various aspects of media and technology, in Wave 1 of Through the Looking Glass we focused on young people in their teens and early twenties to provide a sense of ‘what happens next’.

Our research was deliberately qualitative, exploring in detail and in depth the behaviour and attitudes of 16 young people who were drawn from a range of backgrounds and recruited from all over the UK.

We are grateful to all the young people who agreed to be interviewed about their smartphone use over several hours and who consented to us using screen recording technology to capture the ways they used their phones over several days.

This ‘screen record’ gave us direct sight of people’s smartphone use – fascinating in itself, much more diverse than you might imagine, and even more interesting when compared with what people told us about it.

These differences between what people told us they were doing and what they were really doing were often stark, and the approach not only allowed us to capture real behaviour more accurately but to uncover and explore the gaps in motivation and activity between what people said and what they really did.

Building on Wave 1, the next phase of Through the Looking Glass is well underway. Wave 2 is focusing on gathering the most detailed evidence of people’s smartphone behaviours yet, through analysing full-time screen-recording of everything people are doing on their phones, with an emphasis on finding out the ways in which people’s lives are shaped by their smartphones. We look forward to sharing our findings later this year.

In the meantime, please feel free to take the ideas in this report and share them more widely. We’d love to hear your feedback or contribute to further thinking.

We are always happy to talk about our work – do get in touch if you’d like to find out more or think we might be able to help you.