Emerging research suggests the addiction to our smartphones is perpetuated, in part, by the idea that people view them as an extension of themselves.
“Phones have transformed our lives,” said Aner Sela, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Florida. “They’re very personal, but at the same time they have a darker side that we should be aware of.”
In 2020, Sela researched how behaviors change when people do certain activities on their phones rather than on a computer or in person. The study found that when people purchased items on their cell phones, they were willing to pay more for items that they viewed as expressive and unique. He hypothesizes it is because people feel more in tune with their emotions when using the device. Sela also found people tend to express more polarizing beliefs when using smartphones.
“I think it just makes you feel more comfortable,” he said. “You reach to it when you feel a little nervous. Obviously, when it’s not around we can get very upset.”
“I actually argue that our phones act sort of like an adult pacifier,” added Shiri Melumad, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Melumad has also researched human behavior and smartphones. She says when people scroll social media on phones, they are more vulnerable to believing fake news. They are also more willing to share information they would not share otherwise, whether it be with friends or scammers.
“People are more willing to disclose intimate or personal information when it’s elicited on their smartphone than when it’s elicited on their PC, and part of the reason for this is this idea that we feel more comforted when we’re engaging in certain tasks on their phones than on their PC,” she said.
Melumad argues the information is not all bad. In a moment of stress or uncertainty, people tend to reach for their phones and clutch them. She says that can be a good source of comfort, replacing other objects like fidget spinners.
She says becoming aware of our subconscious interactions with devices can allow people to use those behaviors for good.