Cellphones

Cellphone Separation Anxiety: Real, and Making Us Dumber?

Findings suggest cellphone separation anxiety can negatively impact cognitive performance and cause blood pressure to rise.

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ianhiggy/Flickr

A new study from the University of Missouri shows that cellphone separation anxiety could cause physical and cognitive effects. "iPhone Separation Anxiety Makes You Dumb," Time magazine reported. "Pining for your iPhone can numb the brain," warned CNET

For the study, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, student participants were told they were testing a new wireless blood pressure cuff. While testing it, they were to complete some simple word search puzzles. During the first testing round, participants were allowed to keep phones on them. But for the second round, researchers said phones needed to be placed further away because they were interfering with the cuff's Bluetooth capabilities.

All participants were iPhone users, though they were unaware this was a reason for their inclusion in the study. During the second testing round, researchers called participant iPhones, which they were then unable to answer. Many experienced higher blood pressure and an increased heart rate. They also performed worse on the word puzzles this time. "Our findings suggest that iPhone separation can negatively impact performance on mental tasks," lead study author Russell Clayton said. 

Plausible enough, though it seems hard to distinguish the effects of phone separation per se from other possible causes for the changes: the fact of an interruption in general, wondering who might be calling, feeling guilt that a phone's volume hadn't been shut off. (In actuality, researchers switched on the volume for phones that had been placed on silent, adding confusion to the list of factors which may have provoked participant responses.) 

Clayton added that study results "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." I don't know about all that. Anxiety over separation from a phone as an object seems a different thing entirely than anxiety provoked by lack of access to what the phone brings—a text from a friend, likes on a Facebook status, confirmation that the communications you've put out into the world are not totally awful and embarrassing. And this, too, seems different from negative reactions brought by missing a specific communication-in-progress. 

The study didn't probe what underlie participant anxiety, and I think it's a bit rash to read results as some sort of meditation on 21st century selfhood. In any event, the study may be good news for folks who do like to keep their phones omnipresent. A University of Missouri press release about the study advises that "iPhone users should avoid parting with their phones during daily situations that involve a great deal of attention, such as taking tests, sitting in conferences or meetings, or completing important work assignments". 

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  1. I’ll just leave this here and be on my way: http://neurotheory.columbia.ed….._cult.html

    1. Yeah, interesting. When I was in college – and even in high school chemistry – we did EXACTLY the re-running of previous experiments, precisely to verify the results and establish a baseline.

      So – I think this person’s with a professor or two saying, “No, don’t rerun experiment X for A – you’re wasting your time” is….perhaps not unique, but certainly not ubiquitous.

      I do so love the Cargo Cult, regardless!

  2. I’ll just leave this here and be on my way

  3. But how many of them would rape their phones if they thought they could get away with it?

    1. All the men, and the self-hating women.

      That’s just a hypothesis (well, except about the men – that’s a FACT).

  4. During the second testing round, researchers called participant iPhones, which they were then unable to answer.

    Did they really not have the budget to not call the phones in the second round and then call the phones in the third round? Seriously?

    It would then have been trivial to distinguish actual device separation anxiety — which may be a thing — from knowing you are missing a phone call — which is definitely a thing.

    1. From my reading, they weren’t even forethinking enough to have a group where the phones were wholly removed from the room.

      I get the impression that this is a study where more control groups would only serve to support any/all null hypotheses.

  5. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

    Dammit, when is the DPRK going to get around to Nuking us?

    1. “Do you know how fucking BUSY I am?!” – Kim Jong Il (RIP)

  6. I’ve forgotten my cellphone while heading off to work. It’s just annoying not being able to contact people via text or get immediate email. Amazingly I managed to survive the day with only a little separation anxiety *sniff*

    1. This. I routinely forget to pocket my cell about once every 6 months. Mostly it’s, “SHIT! I hope I don’t get too many calls today….”

      And nothing else happened!

    2. I “forget” my cell phone all the time. It’s nice to be left the fuck alone every now and then.

  7. I think stupidity causes people to own Apple products.

    1. Haha. This was my initial thought (before reading about the true methodological flaws). Curious to see how Android owners or even (GASP!) the four people who own a Blackberry would fare.

    2. Some people have problems.

      Yours is being upset that other people like Apple products.

  8. Note that it specifically mentions jerkPhones. Doesn’t that explain it all?

    1. Yes – it’s clickbait.

      If it was “phones” it wouldn’t get headlines or attention.

      If it compared iPhones to Android phones to Windows phones to the five people still using Blackberries, it’d find … well, almost certainly “no difference”.

      People hate missing a call. There’s no magic specialness to iPhones about that.

      1. (And kudos to Reason for not falling into that trap in its writeup, too.)

  9. Also – whatever…

  10. I get more stressed over the missed call than the phone itself. Because so few people call me to chit-chat it’s usually very important.

  11. the fact of an interruption in general, wondering who might be calling, feeling guilt that a phone’s volume hadn’t been shut off. (In actuality, researchers switched on the volume for phones that had been placed on silent, adding confusion to the list of factors which may have provoked participant responses.)

    This most likely. GIGO

  12. And how did they control for participants for whom the cell phone call could be something important, like news that daddy was in the hospital, or that sis had just given birth, or the headhunter had the feedback from that big job interview last week?

    I don’t get anxious because I can’t answer a generic phone call. I get anxious because I have several important threads in my life where a phone call can prove life-altering. I’d be just as anxious in the 1970’s if they let me know they were barring a Western Union guy from delivering a telegram to me.

  13. Easy solution, just implant them in your wrist or ear or whatever.

  14. During the second testing round, researchers called participant iPhones, which they were then unable to answer. Many experienced higher blood pressure and an increased heart rate. They also performed worse on the word puzzles this time. …it seems hard to distinguish the effects of phone separation per se from other possible causes for the changes

    Or the simple possibility that subjects felt guilty about not answering the phone.

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