The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated consumers’ reliance on new technologies in almost all aspects of their lives, from how they shop, to how they work, to how they communicate with colleagues and loved ones. While a number of technologies have played an important role in this transformation—such as the growth of reliance on video conferencing—among the most important has been the smartphone, a technological device possessed by nearly all adults worldwide. While smartphones had already been an increasingly ubiquitous and irreplaceable part of our lives over the past few years, since the start of the pandemic the device has become an even more essential possession for many of us. Indeed, recent industry reports indicate that smartphone use has increased significantly during the pandemic, with US consumers now spending an average of twenty-three additional minutes per day on their device. This increased dependence on our smartphone seemed particularly notable during stay-at-home lockdowns, when functionalities that were once seen as useful—for example, allowing us to stay constantly updated on news, keep in touch with loved ones, and deliver products to our doorstep—were suddenly transformed into lifelines connecting us to the outside world.
What is interesting, however, is that many of these functionalities (e.g., communication capabilities, access to information, delivery services) are available across a number of the devices we’ve had at our disposal during quarantine, such as our laptop or tablet. Why is it, then, that during this crisis many of us have become more attached to our smartphone in particular? This occurred not solely because of what we can do with our phones, but also because of more deeply rooted emotional and psychological associations we have with the device. For many consumers, their smartphone has also acted as a “pacifying technology” or “adult pacifier” that has helped them cope with the immense psychic stress triggered by the pandemic.
Because of a unique combination of properties—a phone’s highly personal nature, haptic qualities, the sense of privacy it often affords, as well as its wide array of functionalities—over time our smartphone comes to provide a reassuring presence for us, allowing it to serve as a pacifying technology that increases our psychological comfort and, in turn, alleviates feelings of stress.
Results across a series of lab and field studies provide support for this thesis. For example, after being placed under stress, participants who were randomly assigned to use their smartphone to engage in a simple task reported a greater sense of relief than those assigned to engage in the same task on their laptop—and even reported greater stress relief than those assigned to engage in the task on an otherwise similar phone belonging to someone else.
A similar pattern of results appears to occur naturally in the real world. For example, consumers who used their smartphone mostly for work (like answering work emails) tended to derive less psychological comfort and, in turn, less stress relief from the device relative to those who used their phone more for personal reasons like chatting with friends and family. Results from another study found that—relative to current smokers—people who recently quit smoking felt greater attachment to their smartphone; moreover, this relationship was most pronounced for people who quit most recently, with the effect weakening the further back in time they quit. That is, consumers who presumably had the greatest need for a source of relief from stress—those who quit smoking most recently—felt the greatest attachment to their smartphone. Taken together, it appears that much like children derive comfort from their pacifier or security blanket, many of us derive similar emotional benefits from engaging with our smartphone.
Over the past few months, much has been made of how new technologies are helping to overcome the pragmatic inconveniences imposed by the pandemic. These technologies—and smartphones in particular—have played a similarly important role in helping people cope with the emotional toll that the pandemic has wreaked on their daily lives. These days, the palliative role that our smartphone can play (when used in moderation)—that of our adult pacifier—feels more valuable than ever.
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