If you think of your iPhone as giving you superpowers, maybe you’re right. Or maybe the reverse is true: being without your iPhone drains you, like Superman being near kryptonite.
A study published last week by Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner, and Anthony Almond, researchers at The University of Missouri, examined whether being separated from an iPhone had negative effects on people. The researchers looked at both the physical effects on the body and the ability to complete cognitive tasks when participants were separated from their iPhones. Any guesses as to the findings?
In a study titled, The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, researchers told participants that the study involved the testing of a wireless blood pressure cuff. Instead, the study actually measured the effects of being separated from an iPhone on both the physical and the cognitive skills of the participants. The intent of the study was to examine “the effects on self, cognition, anxiety, and physiology when iPhone users are unable to answer their iPhone while performing cognitive tasks.”
The researchers looked at people’s dependence on smartphones to see whether people began to regard their iPhones as an extension of themselves. “Attachment to one’s cell phone may result from the phone’s capacity to provide information access, social interaction, and personal safety.” Much as carpenters may begin to regard hammers as an extension of themselves, smartphone users may feel a virtual umbilical cord to their phones.
In their report, the researchers discuss how nomophobia and a fear of missing out (“FOMO“) can cause people stress when they are separated from their phones. They predicted that being separated from their smartphones would have a significant effect on study participants.
➪ See, Poll: Do You Suffer from Nomophobia? to learn more about nomophobia.
How the Study Was Conducted
The researchers put a wireless blood pressure cuff on the participants then asked them to complete a word search puzzle. The participants were then told that their iPhones were causing Bluetooth interference with the blood pressure cuffs so their phones needed to be moved away from the cuffs. The iPhones were placed in a nearby cubicle where the participants could see the phones. They were instructed not to leave their seats during the study.
iPhones were chosen because the researchers could easily turn the ringer switch on, to make sure that the participants could hear their phones ringing.
Participants were then given the word search puzzles and were told they had five minutes to find as many US state names as possible. At minute three researchers called the participants’ iPhones so the participants could hear the phones ring but couldn’t answer them. (One participant was disqualified from the study when she left her seat to answer her phone.) At minute four the participants’ blood pressure and heart rate was measured and at minute five the word puzzles were collected.
Researchers also gave the participants a similar word search puzzle to complete while in possession of their iPhones as a control test. This control test was given as the first puzzle for half the group and as the second puzzle for the other half. Participants were given five minutes to complete this task as well but without their iPhones ringing. Blood pressure and heart rate measurements were taken at minute four.
After the test was completed, all participants reported that they were not aware that their reaction to their iPhones was being measured. They were given an opportunity to opt out of the study after learning of its true purpose but none withdrew for that reason.
Researchers measured results based both on quantitative measurements and self-reporting by the participants. Both anxiety levels and cognitive skills were measured. The researchers’ predicted heightened anxiety and diminished cognitive skills of participants being separated from their iPhones. These predictions were confirmed by the study.
Participants reported a lower state of anxiety when they were in possession of their iPhones and a higher state of anxiety when they were separated from their ringing iPhones. Blood pressure and heart rate measurements confirmed the anxious state of the participants when separated from their ringing iPhones.
The ability to complete the word search puzzle was also negatively affected by the participants being unable to answer their ringing iPhones. Participants were able to find significantly fewer words in the puzzles when distracted by their ringing iPhones.
The good news is that participants who were in possession of their iPhones had lowered anxiety and improved cognitive functions. This was true whether the participants were initially separated from their iPhones with the first word search puzzle and reunited with their phones for the second puzzle, or whether they were in possession of their iPhone in the first puzzle and separated from their phones for the second puzzle.
Limitations of the Study
The participants of the study weren’t an average cross-section of the world or even of US citizens. The study group included 40 college students, average age 21.21 years old, who use an iPhone and were mostly female (73%) and white (88%). The participants were heavy users of their iPhones, reporting an average time of 3.5 hours of use per day.
The study also didn’t control for the effect of a ringing phone that wasn’t a cell phone. If a landline phone were ringing in the room, participants still may have experienced stress and distraction from the task. Similarly, the study didn’t measure the effects of the iPhone ringing while in the possession of the participants to determine the effect of separation from the phone.
The researchers acknowledge the limitations of the study and hope that their study inspires further research.
When I left my iPhone behind in an airport parking lot during a trip to Alaska, I didn’t experience either nomophobia or FOMO. Managing just fine with my iPad and the phones of my family members on the trip, I was able to stay in touch with others and feel connected to the world. Granted, I didn’t have to perform many cognitive tasks on the trip but I don’t think my separation from my iPhone would have affected my cognitive abilities then.
Check out the article describing my experience => Surviving without an iPhone
But that article evoked strong reactions from readers, as evidenced by comments and the results of the poll in that article. Many readers said they would not have boarded a plane without their phones.
My laptop computer (a/k/a The Beast) crashed earlier this week and is in the process of being repaired. I’m writing this article on a borrowed desktop computer and have to confess the words aren’t flowing as easily as usual. Perhaps being separated from my laptop is affecting my cognitive abilities? Is The Beast my hammer?
What do you think of the study? Do you experience smartphone separation anxiety? Does a ringing phone distract you? Does having your phone in your possession make you smarter and healthier? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section below!
*Singapore City Skyline (edited) courtesy of Choo Yut Shing via Flickr and Creative Commons
** Nomophobia image courtesy of Marianne Masculino via Flickr and Creative Commons