iPhone Separation Anxiety Is Real, Study Says

01/09/2015 12:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2015
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You might think you're doing yourself a favor if you leave your phone behind when you head to an important meeting or dinner with the in-laws, but a new study suggests just the opposite is true.

According to new research from the University of Missouri, being separated from your iPhone can lead to "physiological anxiety" and "poor cognitive performance."

The study, "The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology," was published online Thursday in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Researchers recruited a total of 40 iPhone-using participants from three journalism courses at a "large university" in the Midwest. (iPhones were selected because it's easy to disable the device's "silent mode," researchers wrote.) Then, they ran a couple of experiments.

First, participants were told to sit in a cubicle and complete a puzzle while in possession of their phone; then, they were asked to complete another puzzle, but they were told that their phone was causing "Bluetooth interference" and that it needed to be moved elsewhere in the room. Researchers then called the phone -- study participants could see and hear it ringing, but were unable to get up to answer it.

In each scenario, researchers kept track of participants' heart rate and blood pressure.

You can probably see where this is going: When the puzzle-solvers were separated from their phones but able to see and hear them ringing, they experienced "significant" upticks in anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure. They also got worse at completing the puzzle.

In a news release, the researchers suggested that "iPhone users avoid parting with their phones during daily situations that involve a great deal of attention," saying that being apart from the device can make individuals feel "a lessening of 'self.'"

Of course, the argument could be made that the study might reveal less about "phone separation" anxiety than it does about how anxious people feel when their phone is ringing and they can't answer it. Researchers did not call participants' phones when they were able to access them, which may have clarified which element of the experiment made individuals anxious.

Russell Clayton, a University of Missouri doctoral candidate who worked on the study, freely acknowledges this limitation. But, he noted to The Huffington Post that he's confident in his findings: Participants who were separated from their ringing phones experienced negative outcomes.

So, what should you do if you own a smartphone but need to focus?

"Our advice would be to carry your iPhone with you," Clayton told HuffPost, "but to silence your phone during cognitively demanding tasks (i.e., work, meetings, exams, etc) in order to avoid any potential distractions that may reduce your attention throughout the day."

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