A recent clever study by Russell Clayton and his colleagues at the University of Missouri School of Journalism has spawned quite the stir in the news media. Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

  • iPhone Separation Makes You Dumber
  • iPhone Separation Anxiety is real, Study Says
  • Our iPhones, Ourselves: Cellphone Separation Anxiety is Real, Study Finds
  • iPhone Separation Anxiety Hinders Cognitive Abilities, Says Study

Clayton’s results fit nicely with ones from Andrew Przybylski’s lab at the University of Essex in the UK, Bill Thornton’s lab at the University of Southern Maine as well as those from my own lab. Let me tell you a bit about each of their studies to build up a picture of how important our smartphones have become in our lives.

In Clayton’s study, college students were asked to do word search puzzles in two conditions. In one condition, participants completed the puzzles with their iPhone in front of them but on silent while in the second they were told that the phone was interfering with the experimental equipment and it needed to be moved across the room. Halfway through the puzzles the experimenter called the participant’s phone and let it ring six times before hanging up. Half the participants performed the conditions in each order for counterbalancing purposes. Not being able to answer the phone led to increased heart rate and blood pressure (indicating anxiety) and a decline in performance

In Przybylski’s study college students who had never met took part in a 10-minute face-to-face conversation discussing both casual and more meaningful topics. For half the pairs, a nondescript mobile phone was left on top of a book while in the second half of the pairs the phone was replaced by a notebook of the same size. Following the discussion the participants rated each other and those in the “mere presence” of a phone (not their own phone) rated their partner as less close and trustworthy and the relationship developed in the 10 minutes as lower quality than those in the presence of the notebook. The results were strongest when the conversation topics were more personally meaningful.

Thornton’s study was similar but instead of dealing with relationship development he and his colleagues were examining cognition or mental acuity. Pairs of undergraduate students were brought into the laboratory to perform a variety of tasks requiring mental effort. Duplicating Przybylski’s study, the experimenter surreptitiously left her cell phone or a similar size spiral notebook on a table in plain view of the participants. Results indicated that the “mere presence” of the experimenter’s cell phone compared to the similar size notebook resulted in decreased performance but only on the more difficult tasks. The study was replicated using two classrooms, one where students had to turn off their phones and put them away out of sight and a second where students were asked to place their own phone on the desk in front of them on silent. The same results were found: in the presence of their own phone students performed more poorly on a test of what they learned.

Finally, in a study by Nancy Cheever, a co-founder of our lab, 163 college students were brought into a classroom with half being asked to turn off their phone and put it and their books and any materials away out of sight. The other half was given the same instructions but their phone was taken away in exchange for a claim check. For more than an hour the students were not allowed to do anything. Ten minutes into the study everyone took a measure of state anxiety and that same measure was repeated twice more during the hour-plus study (designed to coincide with the length of a college class).

First, it didn't matter if the phone was taken away or simply turned off and stowed out of sight. The anxiety scores were the same. What did matter was how much the person used their phone on a daily basis. Those who were light users (based on a measure of daily smartphone use) showed no increase in anxiety across the hour-plus period. Those who were moderate users showed no change in anxiety at 10 minutes but did show an increase between that measurement and the second taken 25 minutes later but the final measure showed that their anxiety leveled off. The heavy users, however, showed an initial increase in anxiety 10 minutes into the study, which continued to increase across the hour-plus class period.

My take is that we now have four different studies in four different labs using four different methodologies, all showing the same general effect: Our smartphones make us anxious and that anxiety then gets in the way of our performance and our relationships. Some call it FOMO—Fear of Missing Out—or nomophobia—Fear of being out of mobile phone contact or FOBO—Fear of Being Offline. Regardless of what you call it, this disorder is a manifestation of anxiety, plain and simple. If someone is separated from their phone they get anxious (well, at least if they are heavy phone users which includes pretty much everyone under 35 or so). And that anxiety is driving their ability to attend to others around them as well as their work. Countless studies show that people are switching from one task to another every 3 to 5 minutes (yes, that is right!) and the stimulus for those switches is most often an alert or notification from their omnipresent smartphone.

Some will argue that what we are seeing is cell phone addiction. According to the Harvard HelpGuide, the pleasure that we garner from addiction (and helps to increase our need for the addictive “substance”): 

The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex. Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain’s pleasure center. According to the current theory about addiction, dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. This system has an important role in sustaining life because it links activities needed for human survival (such as eating and sex) with pleasure and reward.

In contrast, obsessions or compulsions are anxiety-based disorders that either involve neurotransmitters that are not working properly such as GABA (which has a calming effect on the brain) and Serotonin (which is often called the “happiness” neurotransmitter since more serotonin in the brain appears to be related to positive feelings and emotions) or neurotransmitters that are overactive including norepinephrine and cortisol (part of the flight-or-fight system).

  1. To better understand your connection to your smartphone I suggest that when you decide to check your phone when you have not received an alert or notification ask yourself the following questions:
  2. What were you feeling when you decided to check your phone?
  3. Which apps did you check on the phone?
  4. Why did you check those apps? Were you looking for information or were you checking in to make sure you did not miss any electronic communications such as social media posts, email or text messages?
  5. Did you feel pleasure at what you found on your phone?
  6. Did you feel relief at what you did not find on your phone (such as a missed communication) or what you did find and were able to address?

Based on the four studies that I discussed about the impact of smartphones, I am guessing that if you checked your phone 100 times without an alert or notification you would likely find that the vast majority of the times you did not feel much pleasure but instead felt relief at either not missing out on an electronic missive or being Johnny-on-the-spot and able to comment on a very recent post or return a recent email or simply keep up with the people that populate your virtual world.

As I take a break in writing a chapter of my new book, The Distracted Mind, on how to manage your behavior to avoid (or minimize) interruptions and distractions, I realize that we are all facing a very difficult task of disentangling ourselves from an affliction (that seems like far too strong a word, but sadly may be an accurate one) that is rapidly approaching an anxiety disorder. We may not be as crazed as Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets,

who had many compulsions and obsessions that made us laugh and cringe, but we are beginning to show signs that all is not going well for many of us. If you are a “heavy smartphone user” who checks his phone many times a day, then you may be headed to Nicholson territory. If you are not sure how often you check your phone download an app such as Checky or Moment, which will, I am sure, surprise you as it did me when it told me that by noon the first day I had checked my phone 47 times!

Here are a few behavioral checkpoints:

  • If you keep your phone in your pocket have you ever thought it was vibrating and yanked it out only to find that you were mistaken? If you are like most smartphone users the answer is that indeed you feel these phantom pocket vibrations daily. [For more information on Phantom Pocket Vibration Syndrome see my Psychology Today post on the topic.] Do you pat your pocket just to make sure your phone is still there? This is a sub-symptom of Phantom Pocket Vibration Syndrome which, purely anecdotally, seems to be on the rise.
  • Where do you carry your phone? If you are a light or moderate user you likely stow the phone in your pocket or purse. If you are a heavy user you probably carry it in your hand. When I have asked these smartphone holders why they hold onto it, the answer is something like, “So I can make sure that I don’t miss an alert or notification.” For more on this, see my post titled, “Where Do You Keep Your Smartphone?”
  • Where do you put your phone when you are ready for bed? I discussed the latest research on the negative impact of smartphone use prior to bedtime in my post “Go the F**k to Sleep [Without Your Smartphone]” with the National Sleep Foundation advice that ideally you should put away your phone an hour before attempting to fall asleep. If you can’t do that then at a minimum follow the Mayo Clinic advice that you should dim the screen of any LED device (phone, tablet, television) and keep it a minimum of 14” from your face to reduce the negative impact of the LEDs on the release of melatonin (the sleep inducing hormone).
  • How do you feel when your phone is not close at hand? If you leave it in another room do you feel the need to go get it immediately? Have you ever used Find My iPhone even though you knew the phone was in your house? If you left your phone at home would you drive back to get it, of how that might disrupt your day?
  • When you are at a meal with friends or family where do you put your phone? If you are like most people you place it on the table, face up and regardless of the conversation you respond almost viscerally to its vibrations. In fact, when your phone vibrates everyone looks to see if their phone was the source. Some savvy young people are now using the “cellphone stack” (everyone turns off their phone and stacks them in the center of the table with the caveat that anyone who touches their phone before the bill comes has to pay the entire bill) to keep everyone’s attention to the people at the table.

The studies at the start of this article all converged on our relationship with that small little box that fits so nicely in your pocket or purse and can do anything that you might need at the tap of a few buttons. The consensus is that while we are not facing Jack Nicholson’s OCD, we are surely starting to exhibit signs that left unchecked may lead us to that end. It is time to take care of ourselves and protect our precious brains from the neurotransmitters that threaten our mental health and our relationships .

You are reading

Rewired: The Psychology of Technology

Tech Obsessions Are A-Changin’

And getting more obsessive.

The Anxiety Epidemic

Our smartphones may be a major cause.

I Am a Scientist

And science doesn't care what you "believe."