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The Use of Smartphones as a Digital Security Blanket: The Influence of Phone Use and Availability on Psychological and Physiological Responses to Social Exclusion

Hunter, John, F., MA; Hooker, Emily, D., PhD; Rohleder, Nicolas, PhD; Pressman, Sarah, D., PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000568
Video Abstract

Objective Mobile phones are increasingly becoming a part of the social environment, and when individuals feels excluded during a socially stressful situation, they often retreat to the comfort of their phone to ameliorate the negativity. This study tests whether smartphone presence does, in fact, alter psychological and physiological responses to social stress.

Methods Participants (N = 148, 84% female, mean age = 20.4) were subjected to a peer, social-exclusion stressor. Before exclusion, participants were randomized to one of the following three conditions: (1) phone-present with use encouraged, (2) phone-present with use restricted, or (3) no phone access. Saliva samples and self-report data were collected throughout the study to assess salivary alpha amylase (sAA), cortisol, and feelings of exclusion.

Results Participants in both phone-present conditions reported lower feelings of exclusion compared with individuals who had no access to their phone (F(2,143) = 5.49, p = .005). Multilevel modeling of sAA responses revealed that the individuals in the restricted-phone condition had a significantly different quadratic trajectory after the stressor compared with the phone use (υ = −0.12, z = −2.15, p = .032), and no-phone conditions (υ = −0.14, z = −2.64, p = .008). Specifically, those in the restricted-phone condition showed a decrease in sAA after exclusion, those in the no-phone condition showed a gradual increase, and phone users exhibited little change. Cortisol responses to the stressor did not vary by condition.

Conclusions Taken together, these results suggest that the mere presence of a phone (and not necessarily phone use) can buffer against the negative experience and effects of social exclusion.

From the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior (Hunter, Hooker, Pressman), University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA; Department of Psychology (Rohleder), Brandeis University, Waltham, MA; and Department of Psychology (Rohleder), Friedrich-Alexander-University, Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen, Germany.

Address correspondence to John F. Hunter, MA, Psychology & Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, 4201 Social & Behavioral Sciences Gateway, Irvine, CA 92697-7085. E-mail:

Supplemental Content

Received for publication March 28, 2017; revision received November 30, 2017.

Copyright © 2018 by American Psychosomatic Society
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