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Smartphones ‘mimic’ personal relationships when it comes to stress, says new research

Smartphones mimic personal relationships by causing stress, but they also help us to cope with it, according to new research which explored mobile phones as digital companions.

Graphic of people and mobile devices
Levels of stress were increased for people more involved with their phone

The research also found that some people feel a closer sense of companionship with their phone than their flatmates and colleagues, and in some cases their partner.

With smartphone use often labelled as addictive, the study by Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and Julius-Maximilians-University Würzburg in Germany, has suggested that it can also provide us with something new: digital companionship.

In an exercise to place their phones and other types of digital technology with regards to closeness and importance on a virtual chessboard, together with a range of significant others, friends and acquaintances, the phone was the device people on average placed closest to themselves as the most important - not as close as grandparents, but closer than flatmates. For those who also placed a partner, 21% put the phone closer to themselves than the partner.

In a corresponding survey, participants were asked a wide range of questions typically used to assess the quality of social relationships – covering trust, preoccupation, stress and coping - only this time the questions were about their relationships with their phones.

Those who had placed their phone closer in the chessboard exercise were shown to trust it more and felt more involved with the phone. These levels of trust and involvement were related to increased levels of stress caused by the phone, but also to increased levels of phone use to cope with stress, thereby mirroring ‘real’ social relationships which lead to both stress and stress reduction.

Dr Jens Binder, senior lecturer in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences and co-author of the study, said: “The results are reflective of evolutionary development of our social interactions. As human beings, we are quick to pick up on signals that suggest interactivity from others, and for a long time in our evolutionary past such signals would have come from meaningful interactions from partners only, not from technology.

“We are able to bond with meaningful interaction partners and this may have started to transfer to digital technology. Simply concentrating on stress or addictive symptoms does not account for the complexity associated with the ownership and the use of one’s smartphone.

“Phones today offer multiple uses to help us with everyday life challenges regarding information, organisation, navigation or communication. Our research goes beyond this technical or functional understanding of these devices and emphasises the capability to gratify basic human needs. Our phone is not only a technological device but a psychologically relevant entity.”

More than 1,100 people took part in the study, ranging from 15 years old to 83 years old. The full paper, Smartphones as digital companions: Characterizing the relationship between users and their phones, will be published in the journal New Media & Society in 2019.

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