A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Dec 25, 2019

The Reason You Only Think Your Phone Buzzed

And you thought, perhaps, there was still a line between your off and online personas? JL

Daniela Fernandez reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The phenomenon has become so common that mental-health experts have named it phantom phone syndrome: Smartphone and smartwatch users so alert to incoming messages they sometimes feel devices vibrate when they don’t. Some people detect a buzz even when the devices are put away.The perceived sensations aren’t recognized as a mental-health disorder. Instead, the phenomenon tracks the deep reach of personal technology as a habit as well as a physical and psychological adaptation. Researchers say phantom phone syndrome is related to the social-media driven fear of missing out, so-called FOMO.
Jay Antenen feels a soft vibration on his wrist during a weekend yoga class. It is his Apple Watch, alerting him to an incoming message. Sometimes, it is his imagination. “I’ll glance at it, but there’s no message,” he says. “Is this a widespread thing? I thought I was just crazy.”
The phenomenon has, in fact, become so common that mental-health experts have named it phantom phone syndrome: Smartphone and smartwatch users so alert to incoming messages they sometimes feel devices vibrate when they don’t. Some people detect a buzz even when the devices are put away.
“This could really be categorized as a hallucination. You’re feeling something…that doesn’t really exist,” says Michelle Drouin, a psychologist at Purdue University Fort Wayne. She has studied phantom phone alerts, as well as experienced them.
Jacqueline Nisson says she first tried silencing her Apple Watch notifications to keep the phantoms at bay. That didn’t work. Nor did taking off the watch. Symptoms subsided, but they would start up when she put it back on.
“If I wear it for less than a day, I start experiencing it,” says Ms. Nisson, 22 years old, an environmental studies student at San Jose State University in Northern California.
Apple Inc. didn’t respond to requests for comment. Alphabet Inc. ’s Google, which makes the Pixel smartphone, declined to comment.The perceived sensations aren’t recognized as a mental-health disorder. Instead, the phenomenon tracks the deep reach of personal technology as a habit as well as a physical and psychological adaptation.
“I’m sure it’s linked to my anxiety,” says Zachary Lipton, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who experiences phantom notifications, even when he isn’t carrying his phone. “You realize you’re conditioned like some post-trauma, battered animal…It’s horrible.”
He says he feels obligated to reach for his phone, regardless. His only reprieve is while running, protected by knowing he isn’t tethered to a device.
Scientists say temporarily removing smartwatches and ditching smartphones helps decrease the anticipation that seems to lead to phantom vibrations. “The longer you’re away from your device,” Dr. Drouin says, “the more likely you won’t experience these false signals.”
Mr. Antenen, a 35-year-old editor at a trade publication, now only wears his Apple Watch when he is exercising. The rest of the time he wears an analog watch and doesn’t feel the phantom taps.
Researchers say phantom phone syndrome is related to the social-media driven fear of missing out, so-called FOMO. Another condition, nomophobia, refers to feelings of terror from not having a working phone.
Among the studies so far was one in 2017 at a university in Iran that found roughly half of nearly 400 medical science students experienced phantom phone vibrations or heard their phone ring when it didn’t.
Phantom phone syndrome is sometimes called “ringxiety” and “vibranxiety.” It is also known as “FauxCellArm,” which refers to the more commonly known malady phantom limb, feeling pain or other sensations in missing arms or legs.
Some people mistake normal muscle twitches for the buzz of a notification.
“Maybe the muscle spasm they always experienced, but because now it’s connected to this really important social signal, you’re more attentive to it,” Dr. Drouin says.
Some blame their phone or smartwatch rather than their own psyche. “The phone companies and manufacturers say this doesn’t have to do with their hardware or software,” says Daniel Kruger, a University of Michigan social psychologist who has studied and experienced phantom vibrations.
Research on phantom phone syndrome hasn’t settled on what is happening in the brain, Dr. Kruger said. Some studies, including his own, suggest that people anxious about the status of their relationships are more prone to phantom vibrations compared with those more secure in them.
Humans have long adapted to technologies that turn into extensions of the body, says Robert Rosenberger, a Georgia Institute of Technology philosopher who studies how technology shapes human experience.
Phantom phone syndrome isn’t much different from people forgetting they have taken off their glasses and absent-mindedly reaching for them, he says.
Dr. Rosenberger says he, too, has felt a buzz when his phone was across the room: “It’s unsettling.” He takes comfort knowing friends have felt it, too.
“I had written it off as something that was weird and specific to me, but it’s normal,” he says. “It’s part of the normal experience of having a phone.”
Celeste Labedz says when she keeps her Google Pixel phone in her back pocket, she experiences phantom vibrations all day long.
“It’s the worst,” says Ms. Labedz, a 25-year-old geophysics graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. “It’s annoying because I think I’m popular, and I’m getting messages, but I’m not.”
When she is in Alaska for research, her rational mind seems to prevail, and the symptoms subside. “There’s no cell reception out there,” she says.

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