Also — a bit like children — we get frantic when our “security blanket” disappears, a reaction confirmed by several studies. In 2014, after Melumad accidentally left her phone in a restaurant, she spent an entire day looking for it. “I definitely freaked out,” she says, adding, “I haven’t lost it since.”
Smartphones are ubiquitous. It’s rare to see someone in public who isn’t scrolling, texting, or talking on one. Most of us already know their risks and inconveniences: distracted driving and walking, meal interruptions and the irritation that comes from hearing a persistent ringing at a concert, a play or a movie. The research also revealed that we tend to suffer cognitively when our phones are nearby — we are more successful at tasks when we are not tempted to use them.
A deep personal connection
But scientists who study the relationship between people and their smartphones have also found additional insights in recent years into how people behave when using them, including discovering that people can get the comfort they need. by their mere presence.
According to the researchers, individuals have a deep personal connection with their phone. This leads phone users to express their views more freely when using their phone, often exaggeratedly, and with more honesty, disclosing personal or sensitive information, for example, in relation to laptops or tablets, experts say. They are wearable and have haptic properties that stimulate our sense of touch. And we see them as much more personal than computers, which are closely associated with work.
“Smartphones allow people to be themselves,” says Aner Sela, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Florida, whose ongoing research suggests that people communicate more emotionally on smartphones than with other devices, seeing them as a safe space to do so. “When we are busy with our phones, we feel like we are in a protected place. You feel like you are in your own private bubble when using them. We enter a state of private self-centering , looking inward, paying attention to how we feel and less attuned to the social context around us.
Kostadin Kushlevassistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University and director of its Digital Health and Happiness Lab (the “Happy Tech Lab”), which studies the role of digital technology in health and well-being, agrees, adding that he can easily see how smartphones can become adult pacifiers.
“What could be happening?” We don’t know, but one theory that makes sense to me is that they represent that we have friends,” he says. “It reminds us that we have friends, and knowing that we can reach them, even from a distance, is comforting. Plus, they’re very personal devices, more so than any other device, and with us all the time. From this point of view, we see them as an extension of ourselves.
Phones also serve as a repository for all the details of our lives, from banking and entertainment, to tracking our children’s whereabouts and getting us from place to place. “They’re the holy grail for convenience,” says Jeni Stolow, social behavior scientist and assistant professor in the Temple University School of Public Health. “It’s someone’s whole world in the palm of your hand. It’s really appealing because it makes people feel in control at all times.
A price for social isolation?
But Kushlev wonders if we are paying a price for this social isolation. “These devices make our lives easier,” he says. “There is no doubt that they complement our lives, but what happens when you introduce this amazing device into everything you do? What are the costs? Every time I use my phone to find somewhere, maybe I’m missing an opportunity to ask for directions and get in touch with someone? Does that sometimes cause us to disconnect from our immediate social environment?”
Adrian Wardassistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business who studies consumer relationships with technology, also points out that most children who grow up devoted to a security object end up abandoning it, having acquired the ability to calm down.
“What are we missing when we turn to our phones for convenience?” he says. “Does this give us an easy way out?” Still, he recognizes the deep attachment people have for their phones. “They represent something that is more than just a piece of metal and glass,” he says. “A rock is not going to do that. A personal memory won’t do that.
Moreover, during these shaky pandemic years, smartphones have become a lifeline, allowing people in isolation to reach out to others they cannot be with in person and engage in other activities such as telemedicine and purchasing. “I certainly found myself reaching for my phone more during this time, even though my other devices were just as easily accessible to me at home,” says Melumad. “I wouldn’t be surprised if others find themselves doing the same.”
Melumad’s research, five collectively published studies co-authored with Columbia University business professor Michel Tuan Pham, grew out of his own personal experience. As she suspected, experiments showed that smartphones were soothing during stressful situationsincluding among former smokers trying to cope with the effects of quitting.
In one of his studies, subjects were randomly assigned either to write a speech to recite later – a situation known to produce stress – or to perform a neutral task. They were then asked to wait alone. As they waited, a hidden camera filmed them. Speechwriters were more likely than the low-stress control group to grab their smartphone first, before anything else they brought with them. In fact, they went to get their phone in around 24 seconds or less, compared to those in the low-stress group, who waited around 90 seconds to reach their phone – if they went there at all.
In the former smokers study, subjects, who had quit smoking within the past year, reported a similar degree of attachment to their phones and to food, with the latter being a well-known coping mechanism. established in those who have recently quit smoking. .
“Consumers particularly sensitive to stress were more likely to show emotional and behavioral attachment to their phone, suggesting that the device may offset the stress relief previously offered by other means, such as cigarettes,” says Melumad. . “As such, healthcare professionals could actually encourage the use of smartphones as a way to reduce stress in a variety of settings.”
This, in fact, may turn out to be a positive mental health impact of smartphones worth focusing on, she says. “These phones aren’t going anywhere, so why not use them for the good they can do?” said Melumad. “There are lots of destructive things people can do to calm themselves down, but holding their phone during a stressful time doesn’t have to be one of them.”