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iPhone 'separation anxiety' affects brain performance

Posted at 5:26 PM, Jan 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-13 15:49:29-05

Putting the phone away isn’t just difficult. It messes with your head.

A recent study showed that being separated from a cell phone results in increased anxiety, feelings of distress and worse cognitive performance.

Russell Clayton, a University of Missouri doctoral candidate and lead author on the study, said the results show just how much phones are seen as an extension of one’s self.

“This provides insight into how much technology – not having it – can influence attention and emotion,” Clayton said. “It’s important to acknowledge how important technology can impact daily occurrences.”

For the study, researchers at the University of Missouri asked 40 college students to complete a word search puzzle while wearing a wireless blood pressure cuff. They were told the experiment was only to test the cuff.

But it was a trick – in the middle of the puzzle, the subjects were asked to give up their phone, which was placed just out of reach. A few minutes later, the researchers called it.

Seeing the phone light up caused the subject’s blood pressure and heart rate to spike. They reported feeling more anxious and unpleasant. Performance on the word search worsened.

“You could see that they were clearly uncomfortable,” Clayton said.

Clayton got the idea for the experiment after trying to eat a meal with a friend, who forgot her phone. She was so nervous, Clayton said, that they had to leave the restaurant to retrieve it.

But like the research subjects, everything went back to normal once she got the phone back.

Several of the subjects laughed afterwards when they were told what the experiment was really about. They were not surprised.

The study, which used only the Apple iPhone, was published Thursday in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.