Smartphones: An Escape From Awkward Social Situations

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Smartphones: An Escape From Awkward Social Situations

Smartphones are also used by people when feeling stressed in awkward situations / Photo by: Getty Images


Smartphone usage may actually be healthy in some ways, a study published in the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine shows. These handheld devices which serve various functions, and now, it has been found to be a security blanket for those who feel stressed in awkward social situations.


The Effects of the Smartphone in Social Interactions

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) discovered that the effect of smartphone usage during social interactions was not always negative. Most studies note some individuals would prefer to be occupied with their phone than converse with the one in front of them.

However, the study which is headed by John Hunter, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and social behavior, shows proof that there is a more positive side to using the smartphones. It revealed that smartphones were a source of comfort and a way to cope with feelings of social isolation. The research showed that even just the presence of their phone comforted them when they experienced social exclusion.


The Smartphone and Social Isolation Experiment

Their study involved 148 participants whose psychological and physiological reactions to social exclusion were assessed. When they had gathered saliva samples and once the participants were done answering the questionnaire, a third of the participants were given permission to use their phones as they normally did, another third was not allowed to use their phone during the experiment. The final third of the participants’ phones were taken away by the authors.

Afterwards, the participants were led to a room to sit with two other people who were trained to socially exclude them. The two people who were with them at the table would then start talking about a fictional personal connection and would be ignoring them.

At the end of the experiment, the authors collected saliva again from the participants and asked them to report how they reacted. The researchers found that those who had the lowest levels of the stress hormone in the saliva, alpha-amylase, were the people who had their phones with them during the experiment but were not allowed to use them.

Compared to the group that did not have phones, the ones who were allowed to bring their phones were noted to feel less isolated and left out. Their study was completed within nine months.



The Smartphone as a Security Blanket

Hunter states, “Our study suggests that the mere presence of the phone, not necessarily actually using it, can buffer against the negative experience and effects of social exclusion.”

He then describes that the phone is a representation of an individual’s larger personal network and that being able to redirect their focus from the environmental stressors to the symbolic connections which their phone provides may help lessen the feelings of isolation and make them feel more secure.

He adds, “It could be that possessing your phone is a reminder of your support system, symbolically and literally allowing you to connect with others outside your immediate surroundings.”

His co-author Sarah Pressman, an associate professor of psychology and behavior, says that the stress response of the body, when accompanied by feelings of isolation, rejection, and stress, could be detrimental to a person’s health in the future. She also says that their study was the first to prove that smartphones have the ability to make people feel better and visibly lessen the production of stress hormones.


Smartphones have the ability to make people feel better and visibly lessen the production of stress hormones. / Photo by: Wavebreak Media Ltd via 123rf


Smartphone Use Promotes Escapist Behavior

This view of smartphones as a security blanket is challenged by authors who conducted their research in the University of Illinois. They say that since handheld devices have made it easier to detach oneself from their problems, it makes them all the more not want to actively deal with them. The habitual use of smartphones to avoid uncomfortable situations is said to support an escapist behavior.

Tayana Panova, one of the authors of the study, says that using phones to ease an individual’s anxiety may hinder the development of better coping skills. She is still unsure about how phone usage and anxiety are linked. It may be that kids with higher anxiety have the tendency to use their phones more or it might be the other way around. Heavy phone usage may actually cause one to have anxiety and depression.

Dr. Matthew Smiley, a pediatrician at the Advocate children hospital agrees with these and even suggests other “excellent ways to cope.” He encourages patients to educate themselves early in their life about the healthier ways of coping such as exercise, keeping in touch with others, familiarizing oneself with their body and its response to stress, and having “me time”. If one is troubled by suicidal thoughts or intense emotions, he recommends seeking medical advice.

The U.S National Mental Institute also says that finding ways to cope is essential to a person’s well-being. Trying to merely avoid a stressor will be risky to one's health.


Heavy phone usage can cause an individual to have anxiety or depression / Photo by: goodluz via 123rf




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