Feeling Phantom Vibrations

“Buzz, buzz.”

You reach for the object in your pocket out of instinct and click the home screen. That’s weird, you think to yourself, because nothing appears but the date and time.

What you just experienced is a phantom vibration. This is the sensation cellphone users get when they feel their phone vibrate in their pocket, but when checking to see who’s contacting them, it turns out to be a false alarm. Sometimes it turns out that the phone wasn’t even in their pocket.

You’ve probably felt them before; or, if you aren’t obsessed with your devices or regularly use a smartphone, you likely know someone that has felt them.

“They mostly happen to me at work,” says Bridget Hallinan, 20-year-old restaurant hostess. “It’s probably because I’m impatient and have the need to entertain myself somehow. But then I check and nothing is there.”

Many of us are guilty of our technological obsession, which is what brings us to check our phones every five minutes or hear and imagine sensations related to our gadgets.

The need to always be connected and stay plugged in with the rest of the universe is our reality, we have the psychological need to connect with everyone, everything, and everywhere whenever we possibly can. Technology has made this possible, as we can control the search for information about universally everything with the tips of our fingers pressing onto a thin fragile screen.

Psychologist and author of iDisorder, Dr. Larry Rosen, studies our routine habits that now coexist with technology and speaks specifically to BTR about these phantom vibrations.

“What we’ve done is we’ve kind of retrained our brains to hear a particular neurochemical signal and reinterpret it completely, over a span of just a couple years,” Rosen says regarding the instinctive reaction that we have to cling to our electronic devices, even if it appears to not be on our person.

Many may chalk our obsession up to FOMO. It makes sense that we would fear a disconnection between not only the people we know, but with what we are missing out on, or potentially would be missing out on, from the rest of the world.

However, Rosen explains it isn’t so much fear that we have when it comes to missing out, it’s the anxiety of missing out.

We’re surrounded by multiple different platforms of communication–these include text messages, emails, and social media accounts. This means we are receiving a continuous flow of communication, which is creating what psychologists call an anxiety-based disorder.

Photo courtesy of Johan Larsson.

Dr. Rosen explains this more in depth as he says we have fallen into the habit of thinking because communication reaches us so quickly we must respond in an equally speedy manner: ”There’s no demand on us to respond quickly, and on the other end, now it seems to have developed a demand.”

He then expands on the root of the problem with our anxiously responding thumbs. “We will start responding immediately without thinking necessarily,” he says. “That drives us to continue into this spiral of being on needles and pins waiting for the next thing to respond to and that’s the anxiety.”

The compacted anxiety pushes us to create a dependency upon our phones and other communication technology. This is being seen more and more with generations to come, Rosen also shares an extremely recent study done by a company called Gallup, which was conducted in order to see how many times a day we check-in on our phones.

The study shows that out of a bit more than 15,000 adult smartphone users, the results are skewed toward younger adults when it comes to checking in frequently with their devices. In fact, the study shows that every few minutes 22 percent of adults, ages 18 to 29, check-in with their smartphones every few minutes. That number dramatically drops to 12 percent when it comes to adults ages 30 to 49.

On an hourly basis, the younger group of adults reported that 51 percent checked up on their devices a few times every hour. The older group of adults once again reported lower than the younger generation, but still very close, with 47 percent of them checking-in hourly.

What does this technological dependency we have developed as adults say for generations that are born in this advanced time period? Children are playing and watching shows on iPads at nine months and understanding how to use them by age three.

Dr. Rosen explains today’s children and their lack of face to face communication skills. “They don’t tend to look at people in the eye, they stammer, they are not very good clear speakers, even though they might be very good clear writers.”

The anxiety we experience by depending on our smartphones has pushed us to use them as a form of comfort. We turn to them if we feel awkward in social situations, sleep next to them, and force them to entertain us during our frequent periods of boredom.

While what is to come for generations of the future as technology advances even more is frightening for social development, we shouldn’t let phantom vibrations themselves scare us. They alone are not a threat, because the worst thing we are doing in the situation is reaching for our phones. The thing these vibrations are doing, is indicating that we have an undeniable obsession with staying connected.