Technology is advancing at the fastest pace in recorded history. In just a few decades, computers have gone from being massive machines only capable of performing basic calculations, to devices small enough to fit into our pocket that can perform almost any function we desire. With all of these technological advancements happening, it’s easy to wonder what effect these small electronic devices have on our psyche?
Though the research regarding long-term effects of mobile phones on our brains is scant, there is growing research regarding short-term consequences. As the new generation grows up immersed in the digital world, more children and adults display problems with focusing, completing difficult tasks and forming meaningful social relationships. The symptom driving these problems is anxiety.
One study examined a group of 40 cellphone users and the psychological and physiological effect that being separated from their cellphones had while they completed word search puzzles. Their mobile devices were placed on a table on the other side of the room and the subjects were told not to answer their phone. The researchers than called the subjects phone as they completed the puzzles, allowing the phone to ring six times before hanging up. Heart rate and blood pressure were measured. Then the participants self-rated their levels of anxiety. The study found that the inability to answer one’s phone while it was ringing led to increases in heart rate, blood pressure and overall feelings of unpleasantness while also leading to a decline in cognitive performance. When the subjects completed their puzzles with their phones in their possession, yet still instructed not to answer, both their physiological signs of anxiety as well as their perception of anxiety were decreased. It is important to note that it was not the desire to answer the call, but rather the inability to answer that correlated with the increase in anxiety.
Another study split college students into pairs and had them engage in a ten-minute face-to-face conversation discussing both casual and personal topics. Half of the pairs had a nondescript mobile phone left on top of a book between them, while the second half had the phone replaced with a notebook of roughly the same size. Following the discussion, the participants rated each other. Those pairs who had conversed with the mobile phone visible rated each other as less close and trustworthy and the overall relationship that developed was of a lower quality than those who conversed in the presence of the notebook.
In a third study, the heart rates of a group of 18- to 26-year-olds were monitored while they completed math problems and puzzles on computers. Half of the group had their mobile phones confiscated and placed in a locked cabinet while the other half did not. The group whose phones had been taken away had a more inconsistent heart rate during the breaks between activities, and were more likely to stand near the place their phone was being kept while exhibiting behaviors that indicate stress, such as scratching one’s face and fidgeting.
These studies show that when separated from mobile devices, individuals display more stress-related behaviors, indicate feeling a higher level of anxiety and experience a higher heart rate and blood pressure than those still in possession of their phones. Ironically, while the separation from the phones caused anxiety and poor performance, the presence of the phone also contributed to a decrease in cognitive functioning by distracting the subjects from the task at hand.
What can be done about this addiction to technology? First, by simply being aware of the anxiety-provoking capabilities of a phone will help in beginning to regulate behaviors. When interacting face-to-face, do not have phones out. Creating locations and situations in where smartphones are not allowed. This can reduce anxiety over the long-term as well as help improve relationships. Another method to help reduce anxiety is to inform friends and family that they should not expect an immediate response. They will receive responses to their text, phone call, or social media communications when it is an appropriate time for phone use. By removing the pressure to always be accessible, both via traditional cell phone communications and through social media platforms, anxiety will be reduced when the phone is put away. Finally, designating a single day a week to being phone-free will help eliminated the power that phones have to cause anxiety. Soon, “unplugging” from devices will allow everyone to enjoy the world around them without the constant anxiety and stress that comes from the constant companionship of a smart-device.
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Ismail, A. (February 20, 2017). STUDY FINDS THAT BEING SANS SMARTPHONE IS A LEGITIMATE STRESSOR FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. Digital Trends. Retrieved from https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/smartphone-separation-anxiety/
Lavenda, D. (June 1, 2017). Mobile Phone Separation Anxiety Is Real and It’s Getting Worse. CMSWire. Retrieved from http://www.cmswire.com/digital-experience/mobile-phone-separation-anxiety-is-real-and-its-getting-worse/
Rahman-Jones, I. (February 20, 2017). Separation from your phone ‘makes you stressed within minutes’. BBC newsbeat. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/39027405/separation-from-your-phone-makes-you-stressed-within-minutes
Rosen, L. D. (January 18, 2017). iPhone Separation Anxiety: It’s Real and It’s Not Good For You. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201501/iphone-separation-anxiety