Smartphones may serve as digital security blankets | Science News for Students

Smartphones may serve as digital security blankets

The trick seems to be having a phone on hand — but not using it — in awkward social situations
Oct 3, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
a backpack with school supplies and a cell phone

Simply having a cell phone can reduce stress caused by social rejection.

seb_ra /iStockphoto

When it comes to health, smartphones tend to get a bad rap. Studies have shown that constant access to social media may foster loneliness, depression and other health problems. But a new study shows that sometimes a smartphone can comfort people in anxious situations, such as when they’re excluded from a group.

The surprise: This benefit comes from keeping that phone handy, but not using it.

John Hunter is a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. As someone who studies behavior, he wanted to know whether these phones might sometimes improve one’s mental attitude. So he led a team that tested the idea in 141 college students.

As they arrived on the test day, each student was ushered into a room with two other people. The students were led to believe that those others also were participants. In fact, they weren’t. They were part of the research team. They were brought in to intentionally make the participants anxious.

a teen girl using her smartphone on a bus
Having a smartphone handy can be reassuring, but actually texting may not keep stress levels low, data now indicate.

Researchers had told the students that this study was probing possible links between the size of smartphones and personality. The students answered questions about their phone use, their relationships and their mental well-being. Then the experimenter collected saliva from each of the three people in a room. This was supposed to help connect someone’s “biological profile” with the characteristics of his or her phone.

Finally, the experimenter took each person’s smartphone away, supposedly to measure it. One third of the groups got their phones back a few minutes later and was told they could use them. Another third of the groups got their phones back. These people, however, were instructed not to use those phones until the experiment ended. The last group didn’t get their phones back until after the trial. Then the experimenter again left the room. The reason given: to take the saliva samples to another lab.

This left each participant sitting at a small table with the two other people. Those others started talking, supposedly “discovering” things they had in common. In the process, they excluded the participant from their chatting. If the participant tried to join in, they turned away and even said, “That’s not interesting.”

After eight minutes, the experimenter returned and asked the people to answer questions about how they felt right then. This let the researchers know whether being left out of the conversation had made the participant feel rejected, excluded or isolated.

Hunter’s team also wanted to know whether those feelings matched levels of stress being experienced by the students’ bodies. That’s what the saliva samples were for. They were collected not only at the beginning of the trial, but also every 10 minutes for a half hour after the awkward conversation had ended.

The saliva was tested for two different chemicals. One is a stress hormone called cortisol (KOR-tih-zahl). Produced during anxiety and fear, it’s linked with the body’s fight-or-flight response. That’s what happens when the body ramps up in response to something potentially dangerous. (Getting ready to run from a lion, for example. Or fighting off an attacker.) Researchers often use cortisol to track someone’s anxiety and stress.

The second chemical is the enzyme sAA, which is short for salivary alpha-amylase (AL-fuh AM-ih-lays). Its levels rise quickly during stressful social situations. Some researchers think it might be a better measure than cortisol for certain types of stress.

Hunter’s team used these two chemicals to gauge how much anxiety the students felt after being rejected by the people around them.

Soothed by a smartphone

Students who didn’t get their phones back reported feeling more left out than those whose phones had been returned during the test period. That was true whether or not the students actually used their phones during the experiment. Simply having it on hand seemed to make them more comfortable in the bad social situation.

Phones also were linked to the chemical markers of stress. Cortisol levels dropped in all participants. Whether they had — or used — a phone did not seem to matter.

The sAA levels told a different story. Participants without phones were stressed after being excluded. Ten minutes after the stressful exclusion had ended, their sAA levels were even higher. And sAA values continued to climb throughout the full 30 minutes after the conversations had ended.

Those who used their phones also started off stressed. Their stress levels stayed the same for the entire 30 minute period after the awkward conversation ended.

In contrast, students who had their phones but didn’t use them started off just as stressed. In the 30-minute followup, however, their sAA levels fell dramatically.

“This shows they recovered much better from being stressed,” Hunter explains. Having the phone around basically turned off their fight-or-flight responses, he says. It didn’t turn on cortisol, however. Hunter suspects this particular situation may not have been stressful enough to turn on the brain structures that control the release of cortisol in very anxious situations.

The findings were published in the May issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

What seems to be happening

Phones appear to help people in two ways, says Hunter. “They distract us from negative things so we feel better,” he notes. And they provide social support. Having your phone around is kind of like having access to your friends and family any time you want it, he says.

Hunter can only guess why people using their phones stayed stressed. Other research has found that people tend to be stressed when texting, he notes. He guesses that some people texted friends or family during the experiment. And perhaps they spent time browsing social media, but not posting on it. People who read other people’s posts but don’t post themselves often experience stress, Hunter notes.

William Chopik is a psychologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. This is the first study to show that phones can help people in stressful situations, he says. “Technology can be a double-edged sword,” he notes. “And this study demonstrates that nicely.”

Would teens benefit the same way as these college students? Hunter thinks they would. People who regularly use their phones for social interactions would likely feel comforted by having those phones with them, he says. “It’s okay to have your phone with you all the time.” He compares it to a digital “security blanket.” However, he adds, “don’t use it all the time!” Using your phone can be bad for your stress levels and social relationships, he points out.

“Keep it with you whenever you want,” he says. “But only use it sparingly.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

activate     (in biology) To turn on, as with a gene or chemical reaction.

amylase     An enzyme that breaks starches down into the sugars from which they had been made.

anxiety     A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

behavior     The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

constant     Continuous or uninterrupted.

depression     A low spot, such as in a field or the surface of a rock. (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

digital     (in computer science and engineering)  An adjective indicating that something has been developed numerically on a computer or on some other electronic device, based on a binary system (where all numbers are displayed using a series of only zeros and ones).

dimension     Descriptive features of something that can be measured, such as length, width or time.

fight-or-flight response     The body’s response to a threat, either real or imagined. During the fight-or-flight response, digestion shuts down as the body prepares to deal with the threat (fight) or to run away from it (flight).

gauge     A device to measure the size or volume of something. For instance, tide gauges track the ever-changing height of coastal water levels throughout the day. Or any system or event that can be used to estimate the size or magnitude of something else. (v. to gauge) The act of measuring or estimating the size of something.

hormone     (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body.

marker     (in biomedicine) The presence of some substance that usually can only be present because it signals some disease, pollutant or event (such as the attachment of some stain or molecular flag). As such, this substance will serve as a sign — or marker — of that related thing.

media     (in the social sciences) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media. The singular form of this term is medium.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors. 

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other (often anonymously) and to share information.

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

texting     The sending of a text message from a mobile (cell) phone.


Journal:​ ​​J.F. Hunter et al. The use of smartphones as a digital security blanket: The influence of phone use and availability on psychological and physiological responses to social exclusion. Psychosomatic Medicine.​ ​​Vol. 80, May 2018, p. 345. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000568.