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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Is your smartphone a digital security blanket? The influence of phone use and availability on psychological and physiological responses to social exclusion

  • Author(s): Hunter, John Franklin
  • Advisor(s): Pressman, Sarah D
  • et al.

Objectives: Mobile phones are increasingly becoming a part of the social environment, and when an individual feels excluded during a socially stressful situation, they often retreat to the comfort of their phone to ameliorate the negativity. Thus, this study tests whether smartphone presence does in fact alter psychological and physiological responses to a social stressor. Methods: Participants (N = 148) were subjected to a peer exclusion stressor. Prior to exclusion, participants were randomized to one of 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 to individuals who had no access to their phone, p=.005. Reported exclusion was not significantly different between phone-present groups. Multi-level modeling of sAA responses revealed that the individuals in the restricted phone condition had a significantly different trajectory following the stressor compared to the phone use condition (p=.032) and no phone condition (p=.008). Specifically, those in the restricted phone condition showed a decrease in sAA following exclusion, those in the no phone condition showed a gradual increase, and phone users exhibited little change. Cortisol did not respond to the stressor. Conclusions: Taken together, these results suggest that the mere presence of a phone (not necessarily phone use) can reduce feelings of exclusion and buffer against the stress of social exclusion.

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