It’s easy to view smartphones in a negative way. Although they make it easy to stay in touch with friends and family, they too often act as a distraction, pulling our attention away from real-world social situations. At times, I’ve definitely considered ditching my smartphone for this reason, but would embarking on such a digital detox actually make me any happier?
Apparently not. In a study at Stanford University, 125 students were asked to sit in a room for six minutes. One group of students was given no phone; another group was given a phone and asked not to look at it; and the last group was allowed to use the phone as they pleased. During the test, researchers tracked each participant’s level of skin conductance and they were asked afterwards to report their perceived concentration abilities.
The results were compelling – they showed that contrary to the popularly belief using a phone was beneficial to both concentration and mood, at least over a short period.
Two of the study’s authors, David M. Markowitz and Jeffrey T. Hancock explain in a piece on Behavioral Scientist that we’re happier with the phone than without it because of what it represents:
“The phone, even when it’s not being used, can serve as a cognitive reminder of connectedness, identity, security, and even provide a sense of control. Why might this be? While the phone is a single piece of physical technology, people use media for almost everything, from social connection to staying informed, from professional activities to entertainment, from sports to shopping.”
The study’s authors continue to argue that it’s the phone’s power to connect us that is most often overlooked. With this in mind, they carried out a further experiment where patients undergoing surgery under local anaesthetic were allowed to use their phone – something that wouldn’t normally be allowed. They were given the choice of either communicating with someone by sending text messages or playing Angry Birds, and remarkably both groups were less likely to need powerful opioids to get through the surgery than those who were not able to use their phones. That’s not completely new, as VR snowscapes has proven an effective distraction to burn victims, but it’s still pretty unusual. Furthermore, those who sent text messages required noticeably fewer painkillers even compared to those who played the game, showing that connecting with others can have a profound effect on our brains.
Indeed, the authors say that because we’re social creatures by nature, that when we’re away from our phones we risk missing out on the “psychological benefits” of being connected.
It’s an interesting line of argument and although Markowitz and Hancock say there is value in being away from our smartphones from time to time – in particular when it’s possible to connect physically instead – they say we should stop worrying about our addiction to the device and embrace the connections that it enables us to achieve.
It seems difficult to ignore the fact there must be a flipside to the mood benefit we receive from using our phones. There are plenty of times in life when we’d like to use our phones but can’t, so does this mean we’ll all be distracted, anxious wrecks when that’s the case? Maybe you should consider a phone surrogate for those situations.
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