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Phone separation anxiety – worse than PTSD?

The digital generation are developing separation anxiety for their phones.

It is entirely normal – and understandable – that children get stressed and start to panic if they’re separated from their parents, and that parents experience the same kind of emotional shock if they lose sight of their children in the park or shopping mall. If you’ve ever lost your child, even for a few moments, you’ll know exactly how that feels – the tightness in your chest, that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, the increased heart rate…

Today’s youngsters are becoming so devoted to their smartphones they are exhibiting the same attachment behaviours usually reserved for the bond to their parents.

There are some telltale symptoms of phone separation anxiety – people feel insecure when they can’t text or call their friends and sometimes feel disconnected from their online identity.

If they can’t access information, if they are unable to google answers to questions, if they can’t get directions, they are more likely to start feeling frustrated, or inadequate, or both. People get annoyed if they can’t accomplish simple tasks, such as arranging to meet or make dinner reservations.

Some people experience phantom vibration syndrome – that occurs when people who usually carry around their phones in their pockets feel as if they’re getting calls or texts when they aren’t.

These withdrawal symptoms even have their own designation – Nomophobia, which I presume is shorthand for ‘no mobile phone phobia.’

Researchers from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest conducted experiments on 87 smartphone owners aged between 18 and 26. Each participant sat in an empty room apart from a laptop on a desk, a chair, a cupboard and some everyday items including newspapers, a cuddly toy and a beanbag seat.

Attached to heart monitors, they were given a simple computerised maths test that they could complete with assistance from the calculator on their phone.

Before being presented with a second set of questions, half the participants were told to switch off their mobiles but keep them close by. The rest had them locked in the cupboard. However, some of them were given different smartphones to help them while others were given calculators.

After finishing the test, they were kept waiting for a few minutes, during which time, they were secretly filmed. They were then asked to complete a series of word games and a questionnaire about their attachment to their mobile.

Participants who were separated from their phones were more likely to display heartbeat patterns associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Furthermore, separated participants tried to repair proximity to their mobile by approaching the cupboard containing their phone.

During the short break, three quarters of those left without a mobile exhibited displacement behaviour, such as fidgeting and scratching – tell tale signs of stress. The presence of an unfamiliar substitute phone decreased the effects of separation from their own, similar to the calming effect of a stranger on children who are separated from a parent.

Questionnaire responses uncovered evidence that personal phones relieve tension and deliver feelings of confidence and security. The results of the study were reported in the journal Computers And Human Behaviour.

Young people today are rarely without a mobile phone and can become over reliant on them. Where they may have once looked to their parents, older relatives or friends for comfort, reassurance, information and direction, the focus of their attention is now solely on their smartphone – all the world’s wisdom and information is in their pocket.

Phones also encourage multi-tasking – already proved to affect concentration. Phones encourage the mind to wander, and distraction is linked to unhappiness, anxiety and depression.

There are now more active mobile accounts than there are people on the planet – that’s more than 7 billion in case you’d forgotten. Of those, it’s the youngsters who are becoming more dependent on their phones.

A recent survey found that 79% of smartphone owners have theirs at hand for all but two of their waking hours. Other research found that young adults in the US spend an average of 5.2 hours on them every day while one in eight UK users show signs of addiction. Adults however do have a higher tolerance of separation from attachment figures and therefore also from their phones, although women are reportedly 3.6 times more likely to experience nomophobia. They are also more likely to suffer depression as a result of being separated from it. Other research found 18 to 24-year-olds are worst affected – 77% are unable to stay away from their phone for more than a few minutes.

Unfortunately, it is too early to tell whether or not this attachment – now being experienced for the very first time by the younger generation – will continue into adulthood. As yet, there are no definite answers and we will have to wait at least another 10 to 20 years to discover the long-term effect on individuals, emotionally and behaviourally. My guess is that theses changes will be profound.

Humanity has committed itself to a nascent digital culture – our children are born into a society and culture dominated by smart devices. Addiction will almost certainly increase as technology continues to advance and developers find new ways to ensure user’s long-term engagement.

Compulsive users experience personal, social and workplace problems – exactly the same as with drugs, alcohol and gambling. Many also display signs that indicate depression, anxiety and even shyness. Symptoms include being unable to turn off your phone, obsessively checking your phone, constantly topping up the battery and taking your phone to the bathroom. Perhaps this reminds you of anyone?

Researchers at Binghamton University in New York believe such addictions will only worsen in future because smartphones have turned into a provider of quick feedback, which leads to dopamine release and an increasing desire for immediate satisfaction.

This is one of those evolutionary jolts that happen from time to time, just like the discovery of tools, iron smelting and the internal combustion engine. Instant access to knowledge and communication is more than just something new, it will change humanity in ways that as yet, we can’t imagine.

There is no doubt that people are forming attachments to their phones – they need them to be close and experience stress responses if they are separated from them. If you’ve ever lost your phone or had it stolen, you will know exactly how that feels!

Smartphones have already become surrogate for actual social interaction. They are special because not only are they expensive, the more expensive or latest phones are also status symbols. They are, of course, also mass information storage devices – names, numbers, personal photos, memories, music collections, social media lives – in fact everything that’s important to youngsters. They are the perfect electronic substitute for emotional security.

Youngsters claim ‘my entire life is on that phone!’ and they’re probably right.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

andrew newton hypnotist

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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