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Surprising Science

Too Plugged-in? New Tools to Help You Get Your Life Back.

What’s the big idea?

The great incentive for using smartphones and social networks is to always be connected to one another, but it’s starting to look like always is too much. 

In one recent study, researchers surveyed nearly 200 medical professionals and found that more than two-thirds experienced “phantom vibration syndrome” from their phone or pager, meaning they felt it vibrating when it wasn’t. And it’s not just medical professionals. A different study from Indiana University found that 89% of undergraduates experienced phantom vibrations from their cell phones. This isn’t exactly a rare occurrence either. The students surveyed said they typically experienced this sensation once every one to two weeks. 

Now, let’s step back and consider these two different population groups for a minute. There is a long tradition of hospital workers needing to always be on call. So it does make sense that these professionals would constantly need to check their mobile devices for updates, and perhaps sense an imaginary phone call or message from time to time. What’s notable here is to see that college students – and perhaps consumers in general – are moving towards being always on call as well, both professionally and socially.

Indeed, the Indiana survey of undergraduates found that those who text more frequently (i.e. those who are on call more often) are also more likely to think their phone is vibrating when it’s not. In other words, the more addicted you are to checking your phone for messages, the more likely you are to think it’s buzzing. As far as psychological conditions go, this is certainly a fairly benign one, but it’s indicative of something larger. When we’re always-on call, some part of us gets rewired to constantly check for updates — and that compulsion can manifest in unhealthy ways.

We can see this already in the way people engage with social networks. Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently reported on new research from the psychologist Larry Rosen, which found that 30% of people born after 1980 feel a sense of anxiety if they aren’t able to check Facebook every few minutes. It’s not hard to imagine similar studies coming out in the future about Twitter and e-mail in general. Chances are nothing earth shattering has happened in the past few minutes, but we don’t want to miss a wall post anymore than we want to miss a text message, so we are primed to keep checking just as we keep checking our phones.

“The relief is not pleasurable,” Rosen told BusinessWeek, about our constant need to check our phones and Facebook. “That’s the sign of an obsession.” This is the major downside of always being on call.

What’s the significance? 

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when we started to transform into a culture that is always on call. BusinessWeek’s article suggests that Steve Jobs and Apple played a big part in this shift with the launch of the iPhone five years ago. The iPhone was really the first device that provided effortless access to the Internet on-the-go, with its infinite distractions. 

As it happens, Steve Jobs may have helped push us towards being an always-on culture in another way. Jobs famously decided to eliminate the off switch from some of Apple’s most popular products, including the iPhone and iPad. Jobs later said that he didn’t like the idea of having an off switch on a device any more than having an off switch on a person. Yet, his decision reinforced the notion that some devices like smartphones and tablets are intended to always stay on. Add to this the addictive quality of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the declining cost of sending text messages, and it’s really no wonder that we’ve become a little too obsessed with checking for updates.

Given that the trend in technology is towards greater connectedness, not less, it’s unlikely that consumers will unplug completely from the always-on world anytime soon. However, there are glimmers of hope that we might experience a subtle change going forward. Several online tools like Freedom and RescueTime now give users a way to temporarily block time consuming websites like Facebook and Twitter. The goal of these particular applications is to help users be more productive, but tools like these have the potential to serve as a much needed off switch for the most addictive parts of the Internet. 

Even Apple has taken a step in this direction. During the company’s big developers conference last month, Apple unveiled a new Do Not Disturb feature for the iPhone. This option allows users to mute the constant stream of push notifications that show up on the phone from Twitter replies, text messages, breaking news alerts and more. Those updates will still be sent to your phone, you just won’t be bombarded with all the noise until you actually want to check.

It’s a small change, yes, but just by introducing this option for the iPhone, Apple is sending a clear message to its millions of customers that they don’t always need to be on call. It’s a step in the direction of rediscovering the value of the off switch. If we can find that, perhaps we can learn to keep our obsession in check and maybe, just maybe, the anxiety and phantom vibrations will start to fade.


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