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Cellphones can act as 'digital security blankets,' UC Irvine researchers find

Cellphones can act as 'digital security blankets,' UC Irvine researchers find
UC Irvine researchers Sarah Pressman and John Hunter conducted a study that showed cellphones can make people feel better in awkward social situations. (Courtesy of Steve Zylius)

Cellphones can act as “digital security blankets” by providing comfort and security in social situations, according to UC Irvine researchers.

A recently published study by co-authors John Hunter and Sarah Pressman concludes that phones can relieve feelings of isolation during awkward interactions.

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“We were interested in this phenomenon that when people are feeling uncomfortable in a strange environment, like at a party where they don’t know anyone, it makes you feel better when you have your phone with you,” said Pressman, a UCI associate professor of psychological science. “This way, you can either text people, go on Facebook or pretend you are doing something that makes you feel not quite as isolated or lonely.”

But the study also found that simply having a phone handy is a stress reliever, even without using it.

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During the nine-month study — which ended in spring 2016 — the researchers had 148 participants take turns sitting in a room with two other people. The participants, all UC Irvine undergraduates, believed the two people also were subjects in the study, but they were actually part of the research team.

Working off a script, the two team members initially would engage the participants, then slowly exclude them from the conversation.

The participants reacted differently to the awkward situation based on directions they received from researchers before going in the room. The researchers had divided the participants into three groups. Some had their phones taken away, some were told they could keep their phones but not use them and others were encouraged to use their phones.

After the roughly 10-minute conversations, the participants described their emotions and provided saliva samples.

Researchers found there were higher levels of the stress hormone alpha amylase in the saliva of the group that didn’t have phones and in the group that used them. The subjects who kept their phones but didn’t use them had the lowest levels of the hormone.

“This was a shocking finding for us,” Pressman said. “It shows that just having your phone with you makes you feel better. It’s sort of a symbolic security blanket, the way a teddy bear is when you are younger.”

Subjects of both groups who had their phones said they felt less isolated during the experiment than those who didn’t have their phones.

Pressman said the phones were somewhat helpful for those who used them because the stress hormone levels essentially stayed at baseline. However, phone use also can cause stress, Pressman said.

“Using your phone could be both positive and negative in these situations,” she said. “There’s a lot that could stress you out on it. You could read bad news or have received bad emails.”

Hunter, a doctoral student, said the vast majority of studies tend to focus on the negative effects of cellphone use. People tend to fault cellphones and other technology for hurting social interactions.

Hunter said the study is one of the few to show that the devices can have positive effects on the mind.

“I think this study provides one possible explanation for why people retreat to their cellphones so often in social situations — they get stressed and anxious and their phone provides relief,” Hunter said.

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