What happens when we can't use our phones?
From an article by Behavioural Scientist
Most of us spend a lot of time on our smartphones. But what happens when we can’t use our devices? By looking at what happens to us when we can’t access our devices, we learn what they provide for us and our social life.
In a study conducted at Stanford University, students were asked to sit in a room for six minutes. One group of students (the resistors) had to put their phone on the table in front of them but not to use it. Another group of students (the users) could use their phone as they wished, and for a third group (the controls), their phone was taken away and they had them entertain themselves with their thoughts.
Throughout this six-minute experience (yes - just 6 minutes), each participant’s level of skin conductance was tracked, which measures excitation and how the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. At the end of the study, they also measured perceived levels of enjoyment and ability to concentrate during the experiment.
The videos of the resistors were telling, with a lot of fidgeting and staring forlornly at the phone they couldn’t use. Indeed, the resistors and the controls found it difficult to sit alone with their thoughts for the six minutes. The resistors, however, reported less concentration difficulty than the controls, and over time, their skin conductance levels were lower than the controls. It seems that just the presence of the phone can focus the mind and relax the body at least over a short time.
Is this a sign that the students have become addicted to their phones? The researchers think not. Instead, as researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University have shown, people hate sitting alone with nothing to do because our brains seek external stimulation. 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 such media for almost everything, from social connection to staying informed, from professional activities to entertainment, from sports to shopping.
By not letting people use their phone, the researchers can see what the phone offers. Regardless of whether it’s used, the mobile device fundamentally symbolizes the potential to be social. They believe that the power of the phone—to connect us to each other—is its most important, and under-appreciated value.
They then conducted another study, this time at a hospital, where some people were allowed to use their phone in a situation when we usually cannot: while they were undergoing surgery (with a local anesthetic). Patients with their phone were allowed to either play Angry Birds or communicate with someone by exchanging text messages during the operation. The patients who could not use their phone were six times more likely to require powerful opioids to get through the procedure than those who could communicate by text message with another person. And this wasn’t simply about distraction. Patients using the phone to communicate needed fewer opioids than patients playing Angry Birds.
From these studies, the researchers argue that when people cannot use technology to connect with one another, to stay informed, and to entertain themselves, may lose out on important psychological benefits - social connection is incredibly important for well-being, and that a desire for information and entertainment are core human needs. There is also plenty of evidence that we have social brains that have evolved and become highly tuned to seeking out social information. This is precisely what using the phone, with its access to vast amounts of social media, can provide.
This is not to say that there is no value in disconnecting. There clearly is—turning phones off during social gatherings, paying attention to the people we are with, and having time alone and unplugged to recharge are all important. Physical connection and interaction are human needs and to assume that our constant state of connection with the phone constitutes an addiction is to miss the point. Instead, we believe that it’s much more important to consider what the phone is being used for.
So the next time you’re separated from your phone, instead of worrying about addiction, use that moment to consider the value that the phone brings to your life. The value isn’t the phone itself or how often its used, but who it allows us to connect with and what it allows us to accomplish.
How is your church using this power of connectedness?
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