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?

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times