Science explains why you feel so emotionally attached to your phone

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Moya Crockett
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Picture the scene. You’re walking down the street, or in the office, or just sprawled on the sofa watching TV, and you reach for your phone. But as you put your hand absent-mindedly to your pocket, you realise that your phone isn’t there. In fact, you have no idea where it is.

If the above scenario makes you break out in a cold sweat, you’re not alone. It’s a fact of modern life that many of us feel surgically attached to our smart devices, particularly our phones. We all have that one friend who’s incapable of sitting through a film without scrolling through the Facebook app at the same time – and have you ever tried leaving your phone in another room while you read a book? Reader, it’s not easy.

Researchers in South Korea recently set out to discover why we feel so anxious while separated from our phones, and their findings make for fascinating reading. According to their study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking and highlighted at Science of Us, we’re much more likely to experience phone separation anxiety if we see the device as an extension of ourselves.

The concept of the “extended self” has existed since at least 1890, when psychologist and philosopher William James wrote about the deep attachments human beings can form to belongings. When inanimate possessions become associated in our minds with important memories, so this theory goes, we begin to see them as being part of us – particularly when those objects actually help us retain treasured memories.

Where once upon a time people might attach emotional significance to objects such as photo albums, today we’re arguably more likely to make and preserve memories on our phones. And this association with memory is apparently why so many people today have nomophobia (the fear of being without one’s phone).

Using an online questionnaire, researchers asked 301 participants to share their positive memories, how anxious they felt when separated from their phones, the level of self-extension they felt towards their phone, and how often they checked their phone or made sure it was near to them. They also asked participants to write at least 100 words explaining what their phone meant to them.

It was discovered that the more people linked their phones to personal memories, the more they saw the device as a part of themselves. These people would then feel more distressed at being parted from their phones than people who hadn’t merged their phones into their sense of self.

“When users perceive smartphones as their extended selves, they are more likely to get attached to the devices,” explain the study authors.

This attachment then heightens what they call the “phone proximity-seeking tendency” (aka that mad scrabble in the bottom of your handbag), which in turn can lead to nomophobia.

If you feel like you might be a bit too devoted to your phone, there are steps you can take to wean yourself off it. Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology, advises putting your phone on the other side of the room when you don’t need it. If you do need it close by (if you’re expecting an important call, for example), turn off all non-essential notifications.

“Turn off the ‘ding’ sound when you get a text message so that instead of your phone saying, ‘Hey, check me now,’ you decide when it’s time to check,” he tells The Week. “You’re removing the control from the phone and you’re bringing it back to yourself.”

Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari, meanwhile, recently told GQ that he had deleted the internet browser from his phone, as well as the Twitter, Instagram and e-mail apps. If the temptation to check your phone is removed, he said, “eventually you forget about it”.

“When I first took the browser off my phone, I'm like, [gasp] How am I gonna look stuff up?  But most of the s*** you look up, it's not stuff you need to know,” said Ansari.

“All those websites you read while you're in a cab, you don't need to look at any of that stuff. It's better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute.”

“I'm reading, like, three books right now,” he continued. “I'm putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.”

For more on how technology is affecting our minds, read Stylist’s investigation into the rise of ‘Borg Brain’

Images: iStock, Rex Features