You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when your phone rings but you can’t answer it?  

Well that feeling is more than a digital itch: it may signal a new technology-driven malady that is impacting your ability to think. 

Did You Hear That?

A study by Russell Clayton at Florida State University found that smartphone users who were unable to answer their phones not only felt anxiety, but the ringing itself interfered with their ability to think and complete tasks. The researchers behind the study, The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology gave subjects word search puzzles to complete. They instructed the subjects not to answer their phone while working on the puzzles, in spite of the researchers calling them throughout. 

Upon hearing their phones ring, subjects’ heart rate and blood pressure increased, and they self-reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. Perhaps most importantly, the phone calls impaired the subjects’ ability to complete the puzzles. 

While not all researchers agree that cognitive abilities are impacted by a ringing phone, the physical anxiety associated with smartphone separation is well documented by a host of other researchers

What causes this anxiety? Two social theories attempt to explain these phenomena: the Extended Self Theory and the Self-Determination Theory. 

Smartphones as an Extension of Self

Russell Belk, a marketing professor from York University and author of the "Extended Self and the Digital World" theorizes people have become so dependent on mobile devices that they view them in the same way a carpenter views a hammer: as an extension of their bodies.  

So when you disconnect from your mobile phone, you are disconnecting part of your (extended) body. It is this disconnection from a vital ‘limb’ that creates a physical anxiety, which has even been given a name: nomophobia (fear of no mobile device). People with nomophobia experience anxiety when they lose their mobile phone, run out of battery or have no network coverage. 

FOMO Means Never Having to Say 'I’m Offline'

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of human motivation takes a different approach. SDT states that one’s ability to self-regulate behavior is based on the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: 

  1. competence — a capacity to effectively act on the world, 
  2. autonomy — self-authorship or personal initiative and 
  3. relatedness — closeness or connectedness with others.  

SDT focuses on another manifestation of being disconnected from our mobile devices — FOMO, or "fear of missing out." This fear reveals itself through worries about being out of touch with events, experiences and conversations happening across our extended social circles. It fuels a compulsive desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.

According to SDT, FOMO is state of self-regulatory limbo arising from deficits in psychological need satisfactions. Specifically, individuals who are low in basic need satisfaction gravitate towards social media use because it is perceived as a resource to get in touch with others, a tool to develop social competence and an opportunity to deepen social ties.  

Only online can these individuals squelch the nagging anxiety of FOMO. This explains the compulsive behavior exhibited by people constantly posting on social media, even when at family events, on vacation or on their honeymoons.

Take Back Control, Before It’s Too Late

Regardless which social theory best explains your smartphone separation anxiety, most of us need to take action today … before we spin completely out of control. So here are some concrete ways you can regain control. 

Learning Opportunities

Be alert

Merely being aware of the anxiety-provoking capabilities of your phone will help you realize the need to regulate your behavior.

Step away from the phone

Some researchers suggest the mere presence of a mobile phone (even if turned off!) can be so distracting as to hinder the quality of face to face conversations. So put the phone away. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ will go a long way to reducing anxiety … and improving relationships to boot.

Nudge yourself off smartphone usage 

Nudge theory suggests changes to your environment can promote (desired) behavioral change. For example, designate areas in the house where smartphones are not allowed, such as your bedroom. Or create a fancy central phone charging station in your house, replete with signs, cords and plugs, to entice family members to disconnect.  

Weaning family members slowly off the phone during inappropriate times can alleviate separation anxiety by demonstrating you don’t usually miss anything when disconnected. For example, forbid smartphone usage during mealtime — not only will meals be more pleasant, but family members also receive positive reinforcement via face to face interactions. 

Create realistic expectations with social partners 

Make it clear through your behavior that friends and family should not expect an immediate response on social media.  When people realize you are consciously not continuously monitoring social media, the urge to respond will also diminish. 

Observe a technology Sabbath  

Take a cue from William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry and designate one day a week where you and your family shut down to enjoy each other’s company. The rewards of reduced stress and enhanced relationships from a technology hiatus have been well-documented.

Instituting even a few of these suggestions will produce almost immediate results.  

Who knows, before you know it, you might find yourself waking up one morning and not even thinking about where you left your smartphone. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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