Written By: Pia Nair
Smartphones have a bad reputation for causing many unhealthy behaviors and mental conditions, such as depression, loneliness, and they have even been said to be addictive. Often, parents and older generations will take any excuse to blame smartphones. Bad grade on a test? It is because of that smartphone. Have a headache? It is because of that smartphone. However, a new study done by John Hunter, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, shows that they can serve another purpose: a “digital security blanket.”
“[My smartphone] offers an escape. It becomes an excuse to disconnect from the real world without seeming so blatantly bored or uncomfortable with who’s around you,” senior Gabrielle Yamar said.
The experiment aimed to discern the psychological and physiological effects of smartphone presence. Hunter gathered 148 participants from the college and divided them into three groups: the first with the phone present and usage promoted, the second with the phone present but usage not allowed, and the third with no phone present. The subjects all believed they were there to participate in a study testing correlation between smartphone characteristics and personality. They were also placed in a room with two people they believed to also be partaking in the study, but were actually researchers.
As Hunter wanted to measure how people react in a stressful social setting, he had the two researchers converse and exclude the participant when they tried to interject. This provided the template for the awkward social setting. Researchers periodically came in and took subjects’ saliva samples for thirty minutes after the encounter. They measured for two chemicals: cortisol, the hormone related to stress, and sAA, or salivary alpha amylase, whose levels increase dramatically with stress.
The results showed that in all cases, sAA appeared, but its levels varied. In the group with no phone, sAA levels steadily increased over the thirty minutes. In the group where phones were present and their usage promoted, sAA levels rose and then stayed steady. However, in the group with their phone but usage discouraged, the subjects’ sAA level’s steadily decreased.
This suggests that the mere presence, but not the use, of smartphones has the capacity to relax a person in an uncomfortable social setting. According to Science News for Students, Hunter has indicated two potential reasons for this drop in sAA.
“[Smartphones] distract us from negative things so we feel better,” Hunter said. They also act as a sort of friend, providing us with access to loved ones with the tap of a button. This study seems to contradict the traditional stereotype that phone use is unhealthy. Studies have shown that smartphones can be addictive and can have extremely negative effects on a person. It has been proven that overuse can enhance loneliness, isolation, depression, and anxiety.
However, in the eyes of many teenagers, phones are a necessary component of everyday life. Their various functions are can be integral, especially access to information via the Internet. This ‘instant access’ feature is often what makes the smartphone so addictive and useful. With the tap of a finger, anything and everything is available. It is suspected that this is also why the very presence of the smartphone is comforting. The knowledge that friends and family are accessible with simply the tap of a finger can reduce stress especially when one feels isolated by those surrounding them. So, the next time your parents tell you to put down your phone, tell them that it is good for you.