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Are smartphones serving as adult pacifiers?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/26/2022 Marlene Cimons
STOCK IMAGE: Closeup shot of an unrecognisable couple using their digital devices at home. © iStock STOCK IMAGE: Closeup shot of an unrecognisable couple using their digital devices at home.

When Shiri Melumad was working on her doctorate in 2012, she found herself reaching for her smartphone during moments of stress, before a tough exam, for example. She didn’t always use it, she just held it. It was comforting.

“Just holding it made me feel good,” says Melumad, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the relationship between people and their phones. “It gave me a sense of ease or calm. It was similar to children who seek out their pacifiers when they are stressed. For many of us, our phone represents an attachment object, much as a security blanket or teddy bear does for a child.”

Also — much like children — we become frantic when our “security blanket” goes missing, a reaction confirmed by several studies. In 2014, after Melumad accidentally left her phone in a restaurant, she spent an entire day searching for it. “I definitely freaked out,” she says, adding: “I haven’t lost it since.”

Smartphones are ubiquitous. It’s rare to see someone in public who isn’t scrolling, texting or talking on one. Most of us already know their risks and annoyances: distracted driving and walking, meal interruptions and the irritation that comes from hearing a persistent ringtone during a concert, play or film. Research also has found that we tend to suffer cognitively when our phones are nearby — we do better on tasks when we aren’t tempted to use them.

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A deep personal connection

But scientists studying the relationship between people and their smartphones also have come up with additional insights in recent years about how people behave when using them, including discovering that people can draw needed comfort by their mere presence.

Individuals hold a deep personal connection with their phones, according to researchers. This leads phone users to express their views more freely when using their phones, often in exaggerated ways, and with more honesty, disclosing personal or sensitive information, for example, compared with laptops or tablets, experts say. They are portable and they have haptic properties that stimulate our sense of touch. And we regard them as much more personal than computers, which are closely associated with work.

“Smartphones allow people to be themselves,” says Aner Sela, associate professor of marketing at the University of Florida, whose ongoing research suggests that people communicate with more emotion on smartphones than with other devices, seeing them as a safe space to do so. “When we are engaged with our phones, we feel we are in a protected place. You feel like you are in your own private bubble when you use them. We get into a state of private self-focus, looking inward, paying attention to how we feel, and less attuned to the social context around us.”


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Kostadin Kushlev, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University and director of its Digital Health and Happiness Lab (the “Happy Tech Lab”), which studies the role of digital technology in health and well-being, agrees, adding that he can easily see how smartphones can become pacifiers for grown-ups.

“What might be going on? We don’t know, but one theory that makes sense to me is that they represent that we have friends,” he says. “It’s a reminder that we have friends, and knowing we can reach them, even remotely, is comforting. Also, they are very personal devices, more so than any other device, and with us all the time. From that perspective, we see them as an extension of ourselves.”

The phones also serve as a repository for all the details in our lives, from banking and entertainment, to tracking the whereabouts of our children, and getting us from one location to another. “They are the holy grail for convenience,” says Jeni Stolow, a social behavioral scientist and assistant professor at the Temple University college of public health. “It’s someone’s whole world in the palm of the hand. That is really appealing because it can make people feel in control at all times.”

A price for social insulation?

But Kushlev wonders whether we pay a price for this social insulation. “These devices make our lives easier,” he says. “There is no doubt they complement our lives, but what happens when you introduce this amazing device into everything you do? What are the costs of that? Every time I use my phone to find a place, maybe I miss an opportunity to ask for directions and connect with someone? Is it sometimes causing us to disconnect from our immediate social environment?”

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Adrian Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at University of Texas McCombs School of Business who studies consumers’ relationships with technology, also points out that most children who grow up devoted to a security object eventually abandon it, having acquired the ability to soothe themselves.

“What do we miss when we turn to our phones for comfort?” he says. “Does it give us an easy out?” Still, he acknowledges the deep attachment people have for their phones. “They represent something that is more than just a piece of metal and glass,” he says. “A rock is not going to do that. A personal memento is not going to do that.”

Moreover, during these tremulous pandemic years, smartphones have become a lifeline, enabling isolated people to reach out to others they cannot be with in person, and to engage in other activities such as telemedicine and shopping. “I certainly found myself reaching for my phone more during this time — even though my other devices have been just as readily accessible to me at home,” Melumad says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if others found themselves doing the same thing.”

Helping smokers

Melumad’s research, five studies published collectively and co-written with Michel Tuan Pham, professor of business at Columbia University, grew out of her own personal experience. As she suspected, the experiments showed that smartphones were soothing during stressful situations, including among former smokers trying to deal with the aftermath of quitting.

In one of her studies, subjects were randomly assigned to either write a speech they were told they would have to recite later — a situation known to produce stress — or to complete a neutral task. They then were asked to wait alone. While they were waiting, a hidden camera videotaped them. The speechwriters were more likely than the low-stress control group to grab their smartphones first, before anything else they brought with them. In fact, they went for their phones in about 24 seconds or less, compared with those in the low-stress group, who waited about 90 seconds before reaching for their phones — if they went for them at all.

In the former smokers’ study, the subjects, who had given up smoking during the past year, reported a similar degree of attachment to their phones as they did to food, the latter a well-established coping mechanism among those who have recently stopped smoking.

“Consumers who are particularly susceptible to stress were more likely to show emotional and behavioral attachment to their phones, which suggests that the device may compensate for the stress relief previously afforded by other means, such as cigarettes,” Melumad says. “As such, health professionals might actually encourage the use of smartphones as a means to reduce stress across a variety of contexts.”

This, in fact, may prove to be one positive impact of smartphones on mental health worth focusing on, she says. “These phones aren’t going anywhere, so why not use them for the good they can do?” Melumad says. “There are many destructive things people can do to soothe themselves but holding your phone during a moment of stress doesn’t have to be one of them.”

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