Just having your phone near makes you feel good, and helps you concentrate

You may not be total phone addict after all.

You may not be total phone addict after all

(Getty Images)

The panicked pat down. Pant pocket, coat pocket, shirt pocket. You start rifling through your bag as the anxiety mounts. You pour over desk surfaces, hustle back to rooms you were just in, scan the floor in desperation. Nothing. You've lost your phone. Or misplaced it — which conjures pretty much the same feeling: marked loss and agitation.

If we don't have it in hand or see it in our periphery (and within arm's reach), many of us are left feeling uneasy, naked, jonesing. We need our phones. Surrogate smartphones are being designed to wean the most needy of us off the things (if only to avoid text neck and distractedly walking into traffic). Some would argue that at this stage, much of humanity is addled by addiction.      

Still, in an uncommonly hopeful study centering on smartphone dependence, behavioural scientists think that 'addict' is far too reductive a handle for the bulk of smartphone users. Recent research out of Stanford University posits that our constant need for a social feed may not be addiction at all.

Pitting self-control against the need to scroll, researchers had 125 students sit at a table in a sparsely furnished room for six minutes. Some were allowed to swipe, text and heart things at will (the user group). Some were allowed their phone nearby but given firm instructions not to use it (the resistor group). And a final group was left to manage sans smartphone for the full six minutes (the control group). Once time was up, subjects in all groups were asked about their concentration levels and general feeling states. More crucially, all had been fitted with trackers measuring skin conductance to gage how their nervous systems responded to the six minutes of stimuli, or lack thereof.    

David Markowitz, one PhD student who co-authored the study notes that video was set up to record the experiment. He also admits that the video of the "resistors are telling (and funny), with a lot of fidgeting and staring forlornly at the phone they couldn't use." Ultimately, they found it tough to deal with their forlornness and sit with their thoughts. So too did the control group with no phone access at all. As a relevant aside: one study showed people would typically prefer to endure electric shocks than sit alone in thought. Presumably, Markowitz's user group (full phone access) was happily scrolling through IG while enjoying a reprieve from their thoughts. But, one key distinction set resistors (phone near but off limits) apart from the control group (no phone at all): "over time, their skin conductance levels were lower than the controls." The resistors also reported better concentration than those who had to sit with no smartphone in sight. In the end, just having the phones near had a beneficial effect on both body and mind.

Ahh, but that's addiction, you yell at your screen device while reading this. I can't fault your assumption. Dr. Mark Griffiths, who specialises in gambling addiction, says "behavioural addictions can be just as serious as drug addictions." He thinks healthy behaviour stops just north of "excessive enthusiasm", or just really, really enjoying something. "The fundamental difference between excessive enthusiasm and addiction," says Griffiths, "is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addiction takes away from it."

Here, Markowitz agrees, in part. He believes that our phones are doing the former and actually adding to our lives. "Regardless of whether it's used, the mobile device fundamentally symbolizes the potential to be social. We believe that the power of the phone—to connect us to each other—is its most important, and under-appreciated, value," he says.

That connection acts as a salve of sorts. In a previous study, it was shown that patients who had access to smartphones while undergoing minor surgery needed six times less pain medicine to leverage their discomfort. If you're leaning towards a theory that distraction played a role, note that those who played Angry Birds needed more pain meds than those who were texting family and friends. We are a social animal. For Markowitz, his smartphone self-control data points not to a harmful dependence but rather what a "connected state of mind means for us individually and for society."

It's not the phone we must have at all costs but what it represents and that, for Markowitz, is an important distinction. "The value isn't the phone itself or how often its used, but who it allows us to connect with and what it allows us to accomplish." You may be partially off the hook for phubbing. Though Markowitz readily admits that sessions of Candy Crush do also play a small roll. "When people cannot use technology to connect with one another, to stay informed, and to entertain themselves, they may lose out on important psychological benefits." Like those brought on by keeping in touch with your social groups and hearing "Sugar Crush!" when you finish a level.

His advice? "The next time you're separated from your phone, instead of worrying about addiction, use that moment to consider the value that the phone brings to your life."

But then do try to find it as soon as possible, aside from being handy, they still don't give the bloody things away.

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.