iPhone Separation Anxiety: It’s a Thing

Do you feel naked, even anxious, without your cell phone? You may be suffering from nomophobia — a fear of having no mobile phone. It’s a 21st century problem, and researchers at the University of Missouri have discovered that the anxiety created by cell phone separation causes iPhone users to suffer physical and psychological distress. Their study, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, found that iPhone users performed poorer on cognitive tasks when separated from their phones.

Unanswered ringtones, cognitive performance and blood pressure

According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans now own cell phones. They’ve become an integral part of our lives. The UM study sought to answer these questions: “What physiological responses occur when students are taking a test and are unable to answer their ringing iPhone? Does anxiety from not being able to answer one’s iPhone affect performance on the test?”

To find the answers, researchers recruited undergraduate journalism students, all iPhone users, to participate in an experiment. The students were asked to solve word search puzzles. The participants were fitted with blood pressure cuffs under the guise they were testing the reliability of new wireless cuffs. In the first block of the experiment, the students kept their phones with them. In the second block, students were told their phones were creating “Bluetooth interference” and their phones would have to be moved a distance away, although they were kept in the same room. During this phase, the researchers called the students’ phones as the students were completing puzzles.

During the second block, when students could hear, but not answer their phones, their performance on the word search puzzles declined compared to their performance when they had their iPhones in their possession. Additionally, during the second block, participants’ heart rate and blood pressure increased.

The extended iSelf

“Our findings suggest that iPhone separation can negatively impact performance on mental tasks,” says lead author, Russell Clayton. “Additionally, the results from our study suggest that iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of our selves such that when separated, we experience a lessening of ‘self’ and a negative physiological state.” The idea that mobile phones can become an extension of our physical selves rises from the Extended Self Theory put forth by Russell Belk. The theory holds that “our possessions are a major contributor to and reflection of our identities.”

University of Edinburgh Professor Andy Clark believes the brain actually incorporates equipment into thinking and acting systems so that it is as if the equipment is part of one’s body. Just as a carpenter may come to feel a hammer is an extension of his arm, constant use of a cell phone may train the brain to treat it as part of the body.

Are you a nomophobe?

The term nomophobia was first identified in 2008. While it is not a DSM-identified phobia, a 2012 U.K. study found 66 percent of the population suffers from this fear of being separated from their phones.  Researchers at Iowa State University developed a questionnaire to determine the strength of attachment users have to their mobile phones. The questionnaire includes items such as “Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.” and “I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends.” The more strongly you agree with the statements, the more severe your level of nomophobia.

Cutting the ties to your mobile device

Technology may advance to the point where we can have smart phone technology implanted in our bodies. However, if you are uncomfortable with this dystopian-novel type scenario, or you just want to be able to solve word search puzzles effectively without a phone in your pocket, you can wean yourself from your attachment.

“To reduce your screen time,” says psychotherapist Michaela Johnson, “start small.” Johnson recommends taking the following baby steps:

  • Consider replacing your cell phone wake up call with an old-fashioned alarm clock. This simple step will allow you, at minimum, to “unplug” before bed, leaving your cell phone in another room, until you are ready to use it the next day.
  • Consider a “no small screen” hour, whereby everyone in the home shuts down, or silences cell phones, tablets and other electronic devices. This is best done right when everyone gets home from work/school before dinner, allowing everyone to process their day together.
  • When you go to reach for your phone, ask yourself, “Can I let it wait another 5 minutes?” If so, wait it out. Gradually increase the amount of time in between phone scanning, to reduce dependency overall. 
  • Schedule an outdoor activity and attempt to leave you phone behind (good no-cell phone activities include: bike rides, hikes, or water sports). Occupying your mind with another activity will help reduce anxiety about not being connected. If you start to feel anxious, use a little mantra to calm yourself: “The world went on before I had a cell phone and everything will be OK.” 
  • In-person time creates many opportunities for positive interactions leading to happy endorphin release. So, consider an out to dinner with friends-policy: “Let’s leave our cell phones in our purse/pockets until we pay the bill.”