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Separate People From Their Phones, And They Perform Less Well

Here’s what happens when you’re parted from your smartphone

Researchers from the University of Missouri have linked "cell phone separation" with anxiety and poor cognitive performance. (Strauss/Curtis/Masterfile/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

As smartphones become even more ubiquitous—as of 2014, 58 percent of all adult American cell phone owners had one—there’s been plenty of backlash against constant connectivity. But don’t put down that phone just yet—a new study suggests that being separated from your phone can have serious psychological and physiological effects. 

Researchers from the University of Missouri wanted to know how subjects behaved when parted from their iPhones, so they recruited 208 students for a survey on “media usage.” The researchers used the survey to screen for iPhone users and eventually recruited a group of 41 respondents for an experiment in cell phone separation anxiety.

During the study, participants were placed in a cubicle and asked to perform word search puzzles. Researchers monitored their anxiety levels, heart rate, and blood pressure while the subjects had their iPhones with them.

Then, the real experiment began. Researchers told participants that their iPhones were causing interference with the blood pressure cuff and asked them to move their phones. The phones were placed in a nearby cubicle close enough to be within eyeshot and earshot of each subject.

Next, the researchers called the subjects’ phones—now placed out of reach—while they were working on the puzzle. Immediately afterwards, they collected the same data. 

The results changed dramatically. Not only did the participants’ puzzle performance decline significantly while the phones were off-limits, but their anxiety levels, blood pressure and heart rates skyrocketed. 

Of course, students aren't representative of all people, but Russell Clayton, a doctoral candidate who led the study, thinks the results can tell us something about how we see our phones. “iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of selves such as that when separated, we experience a lessing of ‘self’ and a negative physiological state,” he writes. Clayton and his co-authors suggest that having phones nearby may help smartphone owners perform better during tasks that require undivided attention. 

It’s uncertain whether bosses and teachers will embrace the concept of phones equaling better performance, but cell phone bans are on the outs in places like New York City. A decade-long ban on cell phones in New York public schools will end Wednesday, disrupting the city’s cell phone storage cottage industry and restoring students’ access to what Clayton and his coauthors call “the extended iSelf.

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