Separation from our mobiles impacts our cognitive, emotional and physiological wellbeing. Image: Getty.
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Can't survive without your phone? You could be suffering from nomophobia

Our smartphones are fast becoming extensions of ourselves. So what happens when we're separated from them?

You could be one of the millions of people suffering from Nomophobia (or, as it’s also known, Smartphone Separation Anxiety). It’s the pathological fear, anxiety, or discomfort associated with being without your mobile phone. In other words, it’s the sheer panic that descends the moment you suspect that you’ve accidentally left it at home. Or that sinking feeling of despair when it’s on 1 per cent charge. And the sense of relief when someone offers you a charger.

The findings from last years Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey showed that of the 35 million smartphone owners in the UK, one in six looks at their phone more than 50 times a day. Nearly a third reach for their smartphones within five minutes of waking up (not including turning off the alarm). And I reluctantly admit that I fall into the 11 per cent of people that scroll through their smartphones immediately after waking up.

Smartphones have morphed into “physical extensions of ourselves”, and separation from our mobiles could have a significant impact on our cognitive, emotional and physiological wellbeing. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which aimed to investigate the psychological and physiological changes in participants when they were separated from their smartphones and prevented from answering them.

The research team from the University of Missouri asked forty participants to complete various cognitive tasks, once with their smartphones in their possession and once without. As predicted, the results of the study showed that when the participants were separated from their smartphones it resulted in poor cognitive performance, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and greater levels of self-reported anxiety.

Their findings supported the Extended Self Theory, a concept formulated by marketing professor Russell Belk. The theory proposes that “an individual’s possessions, whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, can become an extension of one’s self”. In other words, when we exercise power over our possessions, in the same way in which we would control our limbs, for example, eventually the external object is viewed as part of our self.  In line with this theory, the research team suggests that when a person loses a close possession, like a smartphone, it should be viewed as a “loss or lessening of self”.

This is not entirely surprising. Nowadays smartphones are more than just gadgets, they are ever-present aspects of our daily lives. Our mobile phones are like portable windows to the outside world, providing us with instant access to vast amounts of information, and a sense of connection to our social circles.

However, one of the limitations of this study is its small sample size, and so the results may not be very representative in terms of the wider population. However, the research team concludes that subsequent research should aim to investigate whether “other technological devices are capable of becoming incorporated into the extended self”. This could be an important area for future research, especially since the International Data Corporation predicts that there will be more that 2bn “Internet of Things” devices installed by 2020. The Internet of Things – a popular phrase used to describe the technology in which our devices are connected and controlled over the Internet – is growing rapidly. “Smart homes”, in which our washing machines, fridges, smoke detectors and other household appliances are connected up to the internet, constitute a major part of this trend.

Tech companies such as Google have shared their plans to link their devices with appliances in our homes. And earlier this month, Apple launched their smart home platform HomeKit, which will allow a number of products to be controlled by its voice command system Siri. iPhones, iPads and iWatches could be used to dim the lights, determine whether a kitchen window is open, and even detect home air quality.

It’s exciting to see technology advancing in this way. However, the findings of this study raise a number of questions. Are we becoming unhealthily reliant on technology? If so, how can we develop a healthier attachment to our gadgets? Or is this even something to be worried about? Most importantly, since an increasing number of devices are being connected to the Internet, should we also be concerned about the repercussions of humans becoming connected to an increasing number of devices?

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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