Our iPhones, Ourselves: Cellphone Separation Anxiety Is Real, Study Finds

iPhone 6
The research suggest we view our phones as extensions of ourselves. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Yes, your iPhone may be exposing you to more radiation than anyone would like to think about. But is it also priming you for separation anxiety? A new study out of the University of Missouri says yes, yes it is. When researchers separated people from their iPhones, the poor phone-deprived souls performed worse on cognitive tasks.

What’s more, if participants' iPhones rang while they were in another room and were therefore unable to answer, participants’ heart rates and blood pressure levels increased, they underperformed on simple word-search puzzles, and they reported feeling anxious and “unpleasant,” according to the study.

"Our findings suggest that iPhone separation can negatively impact performance on mental tasks," Russell Clayton, a doctoral candidate at the MU School of Journalism and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "Additionally, the results from our study suggest that iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of ourselves such that when separated, we experience a lessening of 'self' and a negative physiological state."

To come to this conclusion, the researchers told participants that they were testing the reliability of a new wireless blood pressure cuff. They asked participants to complete a word search puzzle while they took readings of the participants’ heart rates and blood pressure levels. Then, they took their iPhones away, telling the participants that the phones were causing “Bluetooth interference” with the wireless blood pressure cuff. The iPhones were placed in a nearby room while participants completed a second word-search puzzle. Researchers again recorded their heart rates and blood pressure levels, according to the study.

While participants were working their way through the second puzzle, the researchers called the participants' iPhones. The participants, unable to answer, were clearly vexed: They had significantly higher heart rates and blood pressure levels after the ringing stopped, and were significantly less adept at solving the word-search puzzles. They also reported higher levels of anxiety and feeling higher levels of “unpleasantness” than when they were completing puzzles with their iPhones in their possession, though they were not asked to clarify what aspect of the situation contributed to this feeling.

But the research, published Friday in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, opens a whole new can of worms about how closely we associate our cellphones with ourselves. As the study puts it, the findings show that people are “capable of perceiving their iPhone as an object of their extended self, which can be negatively impacted (i.e., lessening of self) during separation.”

“This finding alone calls for future research on whether other technological devices are capable of becoming incorporated into the extended self,” the authors write.

Little other research exists on the psychological effects of temporary technology deprivation, but as computers and phones become ever more attached to our every action—and in some cases literally strapped to our wrists—this field of inquiry will likely expand.

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