The Mere Presence of Your Phone is Killing Your Confidence, Productivity, and Your Relationships (Put it Away Already!)
Several studies have reported that US adults and teenagers check their phone up to 150 times a day, or every six to seven minutes that they’re awake. In the UK, a study showed that more than half of all adults and two-thirds of young adults and teens do not go one hour without checking their phones.
75% of smartphone users in the US feel panicked when they can’t immediately locate their phone, 46% check it first thing in the morning while still lying in bed, 33% check it while using the bathroom, and 30% check it while dining with others. Adults spent an average of 18 minutes on their phones per day in 2008; in 2015, that number rose to two hours and forty-eight minutes.
One study asked young adults to choose between breaking a bone or breaking their phone. 46% of participants said they would prefer to have a broken bone rather than a broken phone. And even for the 54% of people who said they would prefer to have a broken phone, it wasn’t a snap decision. They agonized over it.
Face it: Our relationship with smartphones is broken, and it’s time we talk about the widespread effects this has on our lives.
Before we begin, know that this article isn’t about the gigantic waste of time caused by phones. It’s not about the activities we neglect because we’re unable to put our phones away. It’s not about the detrimental effects of multitasking associated with our phones. It’s not about the harmful apps we use on our phones – I’ve already written about the effects of email, excessive video and television watching, and news consumption. And don’t get me started on gaming addiction related to smartphone use.
No, this article is about something far more elusive: The negative effects of merely holding or being in the presence of a phone.
The iPhone Effect
Positive psychology tells us that our social interactions are one of the key drivers of well-being. Tom Rath writes in Are You Full Charged, “Nothing adds more value to life than close social relationships,” and fellow happiness expert Daniel Gilbert says “we are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”
But what happens to our social interactions when we stop paying attention to our friends and loved-ones? When, instead, we prefer to look at our phones?
A 2012 study examined the effects of having a phone present during an interpersonal social setting. In two face-to-face studies, researchers had strangers have either a casual conversation or discussing meaningful personal matters. In one condition, a mobile phone – not belonging to any of the participants – was placed on a nearby table within full view but not in direct line of sight of either one. In a control condition, no phone was present. The results showed that the mere presence of the phone inhibited the development of interpersonal trust and closeness, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.
A similar study again compared conversations between strangers while they were either having their phones on the table or in their hands or while phones were absent. The results showed that in the presence of phones conversations were rated as less satisfying and were reported as generating less empathic concern. Such findings are now referred to as “the iPhone effect.”
I was one of the people who put my phone on the table during meals because I was worried about the radiation being emitted from it. And while I’m still worried about that, I’ve now found a way to both protect my social interactions and my body: I keep the phone in my pocket but put it on airplane mode.
The iHunch Effect
Have you ever considered the effects of smartphones on posture? Look around next time you’re in a public space. How many people are hunched over an electronic device? Believe it or not, researchers are now studying the effects of what they call text necks, iPosture, or iHunching – and the results aren’t pretty.
In a 2013 study, social psychologists Amy Cuddy, whom you may know from her infamous TED talk on power posing, and Maarten Bos randomly assigned participants to interact with one of four devices that vary in size: an iPod touch, an iPad, a MacBook Pro laptop computer, or an iMac desktop computer. Each subject spent five minutes working on their assigned device, alone in a room, while completing “filler” questionnaires designed to distract them during the allotted time slot.
And then the real experiment began. After the participants had interacted with the device for five minutes, the researcher returned, retrieved the device, pointed at a clock, and said, “I will be back in five minutes to debrief you and then pay you so you can leave. If I’m not here, please come get me at the front desk.” How long would they wait to assert themselves? That was the question the researchers were really after. In other words, how did interacting with different devices influence people’s assertiveness, self-confidence, sense of power? (By the way, the participants’ phones had been confiscated before the study, so they had nothing to do but stare at a clock as they waited for the researcher to return.)
The results showed that device size significantly affected whether participants felt comfortable seeking out the experimenter. In the ten minutes before the experimenter returned, only 50% of smartphone users came out to tell experimenters they wanted to leave. By contrast, 94% of desktop users went to fetch the experimenter. In short, the bigger the device, the more likely subjects were to assert themselves.
This goes hand in hand with previous research by Amy Cuddy, showing that expansive body postures – in this case induced by the size of the device – lead to more power-related behaviors. As Cuddy explains in her TED talk, expansive body language increases your testosterone levels while lowering your cortisol levels, making you feel more powerful, self-confident, and assertive.
The researchers conclude, “Many of us spend hours each day interacting with our electronic devices. In professional settings we often use them to be efficient and productive. We may, however, lose sight of the impact the device itself has on our behavior and as a result be less effective. We suggest that some time before going into a meeting, and obviously also during it, you put your cell phone away.”
The iDistraction Effect
In a 2014 study, researchers asked college students to complete a series of complex tasks when their silenced phones were visible. The results showed that they performed significantly worse than a control group whose phones were not visible. Things got even more interesting when all the participants’ phones were removed but the experimenter’s phone remained present. Sure enough, just like the iPhone Effect studies would predict, even when the visible phone wasn’t their own, study participants’ performance suffered.
A 2017 study produced similar results. In the first experiment, the researchers asked participants to take a series of tests that required full attention and gauged cognitive capacity while sitting at a desk. Before the test, all participants were told to put their phones in airplane mode. Then, participants were randomly assigned to place their phones either on the desk face down, in their pocket or personal bag, or in another room. As you would expect by now, it was found that participants who left their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones anywhere physically close to them while taking the test. (Having the phone in one’s pocket or personal bag yielded slightly better results compared to having it visible on the desk.)
The second experiment was even more enlightening. It was found that participants identified as extremely dependent on their phones performed much worse on cognitive tests than their less-dependent peers if they kept phones on the desk, in their pocket, or in their personal bag. Yet, when the smartphone was placed in another room, all study participants – regardless of someone’s phone dependence – performed equally well on cognitive capacity tests.
Lead researcher Adrian Ward concluded: “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants' available cognitive capacity decreases. Your conscious mind isn't thinking about your smartphone, but that process—the process of requiring yourself to not think about something—uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It's a brain drain."
Let us highlight two crucial findings. First, the more noticeable and physically close your phone is, the more your cognitive performance is impaired. Part of your cognitive energy goes toward thinking about checking your phone, wondering what might be awaiting you, and restraining yourself from actually checking. Second, the effect is stronger for heavy smartphone users.
The iAnxiety Effect
In a 2014 study, 163 college students were brought into a lecture hall. One group was told to turn off their phone and store it and all other materials under their seat while remaining quiet and doing nothing. The other half were given the same instructions but had their phones taken away and replaced with a claim check for later retrieval. Ten minutes later and then twice more during the hour-plus session, each student completed a pen and paper measure of anxiety.
The results showed that both groups reported increased anxiety in equal intensity. More importantly, though, it was found that the heaviest users of their phones – those who were younger and grew up with technology – showed increased anxiety after just ten minutes of not being able to use their phone, and the anxiety steadily increased across the hour as compared to participants who used their phones less. As in the distraction studies, it was the heavy smartphone users who paid the biggest price in increased anxiety.
What to Do?! Here Are 8 Tips to Break Free From Your Phone
The general prescription is obvious: Use your phone as little as possible. Why? Because the less you use your phone, the less your social interactions will be negatively impacted, the less hunching and thus priming yourself into powerlessness you’ll do, the less your cognitive performance will be impaired, and the less anxious you’ll be.
In addition, you’ll also do less media multitasking, and you’ll spend less time on email, social media, and News websites, less time consuming video content, and less time playing addictive games, such as Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. And, of course, the less you use your phone, the more time you’ll have for stuff that really makes you happy, healthy, and more productive.
In short, the less you use your phone, the better your life will be. Yes, this is a gross overgeneralization. How you use your phone matters just as much as how much you use it. But you get the point: Our relationship with our phone is broken and in desperate need of fixing.
So, how do we fix it? Here are eight tips to break free from your phone.
1. Track your phone usage. What gets measured gets improved. In one study, people who were assigned to wear a pedometer walked at least one extra mile per day on average and improved their overall activity levels by 27%. Tracking your phone usage will immediately improve your behavior. You can track the amount of time you spend on your phone with pen and paper or by using specialized apps, such as Toggl. You can also track how often you unlock your phone with apps like Checky.
2. Get a new alarm clock. 79% of smartphone users check their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. 46% do so without getting out of bed first. This not only wastes time, but also primes you with the stress and anxiety associated with your phone. By getting a separate alarm clock, you minimize this risk. I use an old-school travel alarm clock that cost me less than ten bucks. Meanwhile, my phone sleeps in a desk drawer, and I don’t touch it for the greater part of my morning.
3. Drawers are your friend. When the phone isn’t visible, its sight can’t unconsciously prime you to pick it up. Your social interactions and cognitive performance will thank you as well.
4. Turn off sound, vibrate, and notifications. We live in an attention economy, which means every app and website wants you to come back to spend more time, which results in more advertising dollars for them. The result? An avalanche of notifications. Your best bet is to protect your time and focus by disabling all of them. Personally, I only use notifications for missed calls and text messages, and I check them when I feel like it, not when my phone rings or vibrates.
5. Go gray. Design ethicist Tristan Harris recommends enabling grayscale on our phones as this will make Snapchat, Instagram, and co. less appealing. It will also reduce the attention-grabbing effects of icons.
6. Delete entertainment apps. A phone without Facebook, Instagram, Candy Crush, and News apps will pull a lot less attention than a phone with them. You can still access these applications via your browser if you really want to.
7. Use Firefox Focus as your browser. Firefox Focus doesn’t keep history, doesn’t keep you logged in, and doesn’t remember login information. You can still access every website you want, it’s just a little bit more annoying, which is a good thing!
8. Replace with healthier sources of entertainment. Get a darts board, pool table, or some juggle balls. Whatever it is, find something you can do when you’re bored that doesn’t involve your phone.
Want more tips to break free from excessive tech use? Check out this article.
Want to learn why excessive tech use is so harmful? Read this.
Want to learn how tech companies get you addicted to your phone? Go here.