How Mobile Phone Separation Anxiety Messes With Your Head

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If I leave the house without my cell phone, I feel a little bit naked—and I’m not alone. In a 2013 survey of residents in the UK, more than half of the people questioned said they experienced some form of “nomophobia” (short for no-mobile-phone phobia), including fear of losing signal, killing their battery, or losing sight of their phone. 

It might be tempting to laugh this off (“half of people can’t bear not being able to look at cat pics on Instagram”), but psychologists say that mobile phones are now an essential part of our social lives, “strengthening users’ family bonds, expanding their psychological neighborhoods, and facilitating symbolic proximity to the people they call.” More than that, says futurologist James Harkin, they’re “important to the modern sense of self” because they act as “comfort objects, antidotes to the hostile terrain of wider society.” For many, they’re no mere gadgets, but “key 'social objects,’” and being without them is no small problem.

That's what psychologist Russell Clayton found with a dining companion who forgot her phone and was so anxious about not having it that she had to leave the restaurant to get it. The situation got Clayton, who studies the psychological and social effects of media and mobile technology, wondering about what actually happens psychologically, physiologically, and cognitively to someone separated from their phone.

To find out, he and some colleagues recruited 40 iPhone users from a college campus under the guise of a study on word search puzzle performance. The students were told that while they worked on the puzzles, the researchers were going to kill two birds with one stone and also test the reliability of a new wireless blood pressure cuff, which sent their blood pressure and heart rate information to Clayton’s iPad. Students were brought to the lab one at a time, seated at a desk, and given a puzzle to work on. When they finished, they filled out a form rating the pleasantness of the experience and their anxiety. 

Before the students started a second puzzle, the researchers interrupted them and told them that their phones were interfering with the blood pressure cuff’s wireless signal and would have to be moved across the room. The researchers took the phones, discreetly turned on their ringers and put them on another desk where the students could still see them.

While the students worked on the second puzzle, the researchers called their phones and let them ring a few times. When the second puzzle was finished, the students filled out another form rating their anxiety and how pleasant or unpleasant they felt working on the puzzle.

Overall, the students said they felt more anxious and less pleasant during the puzzle where their phones were off-limits. The other data reflected this. Their blood pressure levels and heart rates were also higher, and their performances on the word searches were worse when they didn’t have their phones than when they did.

The researchers say that their results suggest that separation from our mobile phones can impact our mood, attention, and cognitive performance. This probably isn’t limited to tasks like puzzles, they think, but probably affects everyday activities and interactions. Having a cell phone out on the table during a meeting or dinner is a potential distraction, but, the researchers say, not having your phone or being able to answer it seems to also reduce your attention to whatever you're doing.

Like many other psychology studies, this one has the drawback of having been done on a small sample of college students, a pretty homogeneous group in the grand scheme of things that skews psych data towards WEIRD populations. Clayton and company acknowledge this shortcoming and would like to see the same or similar experiments done with both larger samples of cellphone users and with groups of people other than iPhone-owning undergrads (who were specifically recruited so the team could turn the ringers on easily with the phone’s external switch).