Are People Emotionally Attached to their Mobile Phones?

Melissa Braxton
Monday, Oct 10, 2011 at 11:00 AM

On the surface, a mobile phone is little more then a handheld amalgamation of plastic, metal, minerals and a battery, yet the degrees to which people engage with these devices is astounding.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 83% of Millennials (those born after 1980—the first generation to come of age in the new millennium) have brought their mobiles to bed with them and mobile phone addiction may soon emerge as a subspecialty in clinical psychology. In fact, Korean psychologists began developing a diagnostic assessment tool for the condition among young people as far back as 2003. But exploring the nature of people’s widespread attachment to their mobile devices is valuable not only to those in the mental health fields, but also to those in marketing and advertising too.

cell phone chart image

To increase the ROI of their campaigns, mobile marketers need to understand the dynamics of people’s relationships with the devices that deliver them.

The Laws of Attraction

Lisa Merlo, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Florida College of Medicine describes mobile phone attachment in that “It’s not so much talking on the phone that’s typically the problem…it’s this need to be connected, to know what’s going on and be available to other people...”

Researcher at the University of Surrey's Digital World Research Centre, UK, Jane Vincent has spent years studying people’s relationships with their technological communication devices. She similarly argues “… (mobile phones) become the repositories of our memories and social connections in the phone numbers, photos and messages that they store. The phone becomes an icon of 'me, my mobile and my identity'—something that embodies our social and emotional life rather than just merely enabling it.”  Vincent and colleagues have even coined the term “electronic emotion” to describe users’ feelings when interacting with information and communication technologies.

Behavioral researcher Clifford Nass has studied human-computer interaction extensively. He believes people anthropomorphize computers and technological communication devices to such a degree that he observes people’s face-to-motherboard interaction as a means to learn more about human face-to-face communication. Additionally, with that type of thinking in mind, Japanese researcher Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro in collaboration with Osaka University designed the “elfoid” handset (which is pictured below) to add an element of realism to long-distance communication by recreating the physical presence of a remote user.

elfoid handsets image

We have affection for our computers and mobile phones not only because they connect us with actual people, but also because advances in smartphone technology have increased their ability to emulate human characteristics.

For example with Dragon Go! (Nuance Communications), your smartphone will listen to you; with Twuner (Krystronix) the “talking” Twitter app, your smartphone will talk to you, reading the tweets that you have subscribed out loud. The smartphone app “Body Talk” (mFactory Systems, LLC.) advises you how to tailor your body language to streamline face-to-face communication and allows you to search a body language database, which is organized by body part, to decode the motivation and significance of others actions.

So What?

It is important to keep in mind that the number of marketing messages that are created, delivered and received by robots has nothing to do with measuring the true success of a marketing campaign; a measure of success is the number of people who respond positively to the communication. Successful marketing messages delivered via mobile devices are targeted toward humans who respond to interactions with other humans.

Are you emotionally connected to your smartphone? And how does that make you feel? Let us know with your comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.


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