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The Smartphone Itch

Why do we get so uncomfortable when we can’t use our mobile devices?

When people cannot use technology to connect with one another, to stay informed, and to entertain themselves, they may lose out on important psychological benefits.
When people cannot use technology to connect with one another, to stay informed, and to entertain themselves, they may lose out on important psychological benefits.

This article originally appeared in the Behavioral Scientist’s “Connected State of Mind” issue, which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior, brains, and relationships. View the complete issue here.

Americans spend a lot of time on their smartphones. But what can we learn about the connected state of mind by observing what happens when we can’t use our devices? While much has been written about the effects of using our phones, from worries about addiction, concerns about feeling disconnected, or even apprehensions about personality change, our work has flipped this question on its head and begun to examine the behavioral, emotional, and even physiological effects of not using our phones. By looking at what happens to us when we can’t access our devices, we learn what they provide for us and our social life.

In a study conducted at Stanford University, we asked students to sit in a room for six minutes. We told one group of students (the resistors) to put their phones on the table in front of them but not use them. We let another group of students (the users) use their phones as they wished, and for yet another group (the controls), we took their phones away and had them entertain themselves with their thoughts. You can think of the scenario as a media version of Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test. Throughout this six-minute experience, we tracked each participant’s level of skin conductance, which measures excitation and how the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. At the end of the study, we also measured perceived levels of enjoyment and ability to concentrate during the experiment.

The videos of the resistors are telling (and funny), with a lot of fidgeting and staring forlornly at the phones they couldn’t use. Indeed, the resistors and the controls found it difficult to sit alone with their thoughts for the six minutes. The resistors, however, reported less concentration difficulty than the controls, and over time, their skin conductance levels were lower than the controls. It seems that just the presence of the phone can focus the mind and relax the body, at least over a short time. (The results are described in a working paper.)

Is this a sign that our students have become addicted to their phones? We think not. Instead, as colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard University have shown, people hate sitting alone with nothing to do because our brains seek external stimulation. As any meditation coach or yoga instructor knows, it takes serious effort and discipline to focus the mind without outside stimulation. The phone, even when it’s not being used, can serve as a cognitive reminder of connectedness, identity, and security, and even provide a sense of control. Why might this be? While the phone is a single piece of physical technology, people use media for almost everything, from social connection to staying informed, from professional activities to entertainment, from sports to shopping.

By not letting people use their phones, we can see what the phone offers. Regardless of whether it’s used, the mobile device fundamentally symbolizes the potential to be social. We believe that the power of the phone to connect us to one another is its most important, and underappreciated, value.

To support this point, we conducted another study, this time at a hospital, where we let some people use their phones in situations when they usually cannot: while they were undergoing surgery (with a regional anesthetic). Patients with their phones were allowed to either play Angry Birds or communicate with someone by exchanging text messages during the operation. The patients who could not use their phones were six times more likely to require powerful opioids to get through the procedure than those who could communicate by text message with another person. And this wasn’t simply about distraction. Patients using the phones to communicate needed fewer opioids than patients playing Angry Birds.

From these studies, we argue that understanding the effects of taking away our smartphones can reveal what the connected state of mind means for us individually and for society. When people cannot use technology to connect with one another, to stay informed, and to entertain themselves, they may lose out on important psychological benefits. Psychology has provided decades of evidence that social connection is incredibly important for well-being and that a desire for information and entertainment are core human needs. There is also plenty of evidence that we have social brains that have evolved and become highly tuned to seeking out social information. This is precisely what using the phone, with its access to vast amounts of social media, can provide. We should not throw out decades of research from psychology and communication just because technology is involved, especially when these literatures suggest that the phone can facilitate important social and psychological needs.

This is not to say that there is no value in disconnecting. There clearly is—turning phones off during social gatherings, paying attention to the people we are with, and having time alone and unplugged to recharge are all important. There’s a reason we drive and fly around the world to visit others, despite various social media in our life: Physical connection and interaction are human needs. But to assume that our constant state of connection with the phone constitutes an addiction is to miss the point. Instead, we believe that it’s much more important to consider what the phone is being used for.

With this approach, we see one important warning sign of the connected state: Companies that provide media content for cellphones are using psychology and strategic communication research to get us to spend as much time on them as possible. The incentives of the attention economy place a high premium on getting, and keeping, a user’s attention. Unfortunately, some psychological techniques are used to manipulate our attention to maximize a company’s profit, including behavioral primes, distracting alerts, gamification techniques, autoplay videos, and click-bait posts. These techniques, when used to manipulate us rather than support us, need to be fought against through regulation and education.

The changes that technologies facilitate certainly influence our attention, our memory, and our relationships—sometimes for the worse. But this has been true for every technology that has come before, from writing and the alphabet to the advent of radio and television. These changes, however, are systematic and predictable by carefully considering the interaction between psychology and technology.

So the next time you’re separated from your phone, instead of worrying about addiction, use that moment to consider the value that the phone brings to your life. The value isn’t the phone itself or how often it’s used but who it allows us to connect with and what it allows us to accomplish.

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Illustration depicting a colorful group of people using an array of mobile devices