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?

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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