Phantom Phone Sensations


Research paper on the phenomenon of phantom phone sensations (PPS)

Phantom Phone Sensation (PPS) has not had a large amount of research or studies conducted on it, and the first study that explored the phenomenon took place in 2007, where the term “ringxiety” was used to describe PPS (Deb 2014, p. 231). Of the research that has been conducted, the main areas that have been covered relate to determinants of PPS stemming from personality traits as well as mobile phone usage patterns. These studies have aimed to find whether certain personality traits or frequency of phone use can lead to a higher frequency of PPS, as well as drawing conclusions relating to mobile phone dependency. This paper aims to collate information on already conducted studies relating to PPS and shed light on the determinants mentioned above by relating them to different theoretical frameworks.

This paper will aim to highlight connections between rates and characteristics of PPS, and mobile phone dependency while showing the severity of a phenomenon that is potentially seen as trivial. Case studies in the form of textual analysis, in conjunction with an autoethnographic approach will make the foundation for the content of this paper. The studies that will most extensively be analysed include ‘Bad vibration? Cell phone dependency predicts phantom communication experiences’ (Kruger & Djerf 2017), ‘The phantom in my pocket: Determinants of phantom phone sensation’ (Sauer et at. 2015), ‘Phantom vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics’ (Drouin et al. 2012), and ‘Phantom vibration syndrome among medical staff: A cross sectional survey’ (Rothberg et al. 2010).

PPS is a phenomenon that is used to describe moments when individuals believe they are experiencing a notification such as ringing, vibrating, blinking etc, however nothing has actually registered on the device (Kruger & Djerf 2017, p.360). Close to 3 billion people own smartphones as of 2018 (Takahashi 2018), and many mobile phone users have experienced PPS however, most don’t see it as an issue and do not think to take steps to eliminate the instances (Deb 2014 p. 231, Drouin et al. 2012, pg. 1490). The issue with this lack of concern is that the occurrence of PPS points to signs of mobile phone addiction and dependency (Kruger & Djerf 2017). PPS is talked about quite often in the media, however due to a lack of extensive study as well as no real medical recognition as a condition, the instances are not seen as a cause for concern even though users may be experiencing device dependency without knowing it. This somewhat new area of study has begun to gain attention as the prevalence of mobile phone’s rise. Other terms used to describe PPS include ringxiety, phantom vibration (PV) and phantom ringing (PR), and the sensation is often described as similar to phantom limb syndrome (a condition where individuals experience sensations in limbs that do not exist) (Deb 2014 p. 231).

The study conducted by Drouin et al. (2012) set out to highlight the connection between PPS and text message dependency, while also showing whether or not individual personality traits had any correlation with prevalence of PPS. The study also looked at whether individuals who experienced PPS found it bothersome or not. Nearly all participants in this study reported to have experienced PPS at one stage. A previous study conducted by Laramie (2007) showed that individuals who used their mobile phones more often than others were more likely to experience PPS. Drouin’s study confirmed this with the high rates of PPS amongst participants, which would be expected as the rates of mobile phone usage is increasing every year (Deloitte 2018). Of those who reported experiences of PPS, only 9% said to find is bothersome. Phantom vibrations have been classified as ‘tactile hallucinations’ (Rothberg et al. 2010). This lack of bothersome indicates that people do not see PPS as a pathological issue because if they did then one would assume that they would be bothered by its occurrence. Not relating PPS to pathology is where the issue lies in realising its seriousness and relation to device dependency. These results show that individuals who experience PPS consider it be a normal part of their device usage. The growth in mobile phone usage along with problematic behaviours relating to device usage could also be another reason for the normalisation of instances of PPS. This study also showed that participants who usually have strong emotional reactions to sending and receiving text messages were more likely to be bothered by PPS. Feelings of disappointment or emptiness when not receiving a text message are both negative psychological effects of text message dependency and can be translated to ‘real world’ social anxieties. PPS can be seen as a new, or modern form of social anxiety and sensitivity as it another way of misinterpreting social stimuli. This leads to the question of whether those who experience ‘traditional’ instances of social anxiety would therefore be more prone to PPS. Further study would need to be conducted to draw any conclusions.

Other studies have looked into whether PPS has an association with levels of stress amongst individuals. Lin et al. (2013) conducted a study in Taiwan that observed medical students as they took park in an internship which involved long hours of work in a stressful environment. Instances of PPS were recorded before, during, and after the internship to see if there was any correlation between stress levels and PPS. Lin et al. refer to phantom sensations as ‘tactile and auditory hallucinations.’ The prevalence of PPS increased by 15-18% in the first six months of the internship, showing that an increased level of stress could be linked to an increase in instances of PPS. Similar to Drouin et al.’s (2012) study, 7% of participants in Lin et al.’s study found the sensations to be bothersome or very bothersome. This again shows the normalisation of a potentially problematic pathological occurrence. Rothberg et al.’s (2010) study observed instances of PPS amongst medical professionals, where 68% of participants reported to experience sensations when they had a mobile device on them. The medical profession is often a very stressful environment, so this study also shows possible links between increased levels of stress and the occurrence of PPS.

Mobile device usage patterns are another area of study that has been looked at for possible causes of PPS. Laramie’s (2007) study showed that those who sent more text messages, made longer calls, and had higher monthly phone bills were more likely to experience PPS. The high rates of PPS in Rothberg et al. (2010) also shows that higher frequency mobile device use can lead to PPS, as medical professionals are expected to always have a mobile device on them while working so that they can always be contacted. Beukeboom et al.’s (2012) study revealed that it may be possible to tell which individual may experience PPS more than others by observing the intensity of cell phone usage. They suggested that individuals may begin to imagine phone signals as they become more accustomed to their devices and the intensity in use picks up. This could be due to the chemical reactions that take in our brains when individuals experience ‘successful social interactions’ (Haynes 2018). Notifications, texts, calls etc. are all forms of social stimuli which is usually interpreted by the brain as beneficial behaviours and therefore releases the chemical Dopamine as a way to motivate us to repeat them (Haynes 2018). This could be a possible reason for why individuals experience PPS. The brain may be seeking out positive social stimuli and the rewarding hit of dopamine that proceeds the behaviour. In a search for positive social stimuli, the brain may be becoming so desperate that it begins to misinterpret stimuli such as muscle twitches as device notifications, leading to experiences of PPS in individuals.

Occurrences of PPS can be an indication to the level of attachment that a person has to their mobile device. Parent (2019 p. 49) describes the mobile phone’s ability to act as a point of attachment much like a person would for individuals who may be more prone to forms of attachment anxiety. A mobile phone can be seen as more reliable and controllable than a person, and therefore can lead to high levels of attachment and dependency on the device. Attachment can be described as the emotional bond that connects individuals across space and time, where the attachment does not have to be reciprocated (Bowlby 1969). Attachment theory can be used to describe what some mobile phone users experience with their devices (Parent 2019). There have been no official studies conducted to show the link between PPS and levels of device attachment, however, by using attachment theory as a lens to look at PPS, it would seem possible that those with a higher attachment to their devices would experience more instances of PPS. Higher device attachment would usually mean more time spent with the device, which would lead to more experiences of notifications and the rewarding nature of receiving them. This would likely lead to misinterpreted stimuli, and PPS. Human attachment is an essential part of life, and a mobile phone can be looked at as a tool that provides individual’s with unlimited amounts of connections and potential attachments with others. So, it can be understood how a person may become attached to a mobile device the same as they would a person, and these levels of attachment could then in turn lead to PPS. The idea of mobile device addiction, as opposed to attachment, has also been shown to increase the instances of PPS. Kruger & Djerf (2017) looked at PPS being influenced by a psychological dependency on mobile phone communications leading to a hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Links between the age of the individual and the rate of PPS have been observed in various studies. Rothberg et al.’s (2010) participants were mostly young individuals, and the rates of PPS were high amongst them. It was suggested that a possibility for higher rates in younger individuals could have to do with the neural plasticity which makes them more susceptible to the sensations. Younger people are generally more dependent on their mobile devices (24 Hours: Unplugged 2010), so when looking at the links between younger people and PPS it would make sense that this demographic would be more prone to experiencing PPS. Younger adults (under 30 years of age) are more likely to use mobile devices to stay connected with friends and family as well as using it for work and school purposes (Sillice et al. 2018). Also, this demographic of individuals have usually had a mobile phone for the majority of their lifetime, meaning that they use these devices for many different areas of their lives compared to older aged individuals who may not have had a device for as long and therefore not incorporated it into such various areas in their lives. This level of use and length of time using mobile devices would most likely mean that younger people are experiences high amounts of different kinds of notifications (texts, calls, social media notifications, reminders etc.). In regard to previously mentioned theories relating to rewarding brain behaviour to mobile phone activity, it makes sense that a young person’s brain may become wired or dependant on certain phone activities and therefore more likely to misinterpret sensory stimuli.

Context of the situation an individual is in and how this may affect the experience of PPS is an understudied area. While it has not expensively been specifically studied, trends can be seen by looking at the results of other studies. Rothberg et al.’s (2010) study suggested that due the nature of the medical staff’s work, any messages they receive while working are more likely to require urgent attention. This effect was likened to instances when new mothers believe they are constantly hearing their babies crying, when the baby isn’t crying at all. Sauer et al. (2015) dedicated a small portion of their study to how situational factors may act as potential predictors of PPS. Results showed that situational factors such as expecting to be contacted by someone on your mobile device was quite relevant in predicting instances of PPS. This situational factor also had a strong positive correlation with the frequency in which PPS occurred in participants. This shows that when an individual is expecting to be contacted via their mobile device, they are more likely to experience PPS and also at a higher frequency than if they were not expecting to be contacted. Of all the variables looked at as predictors of PPS in the study, contextual factors had the highest predictive power. These results show that situational factors play an important role in the prediction and occurrence of PPS and should be studied more specifically in the future. While Sauer et al.’s (2015) study looked only at whether the participant was waiting to be contacted, other studies could look into factors such as waiting for contact in noisy environments, or importance placed on the incoming contact to find out how significant of a role these factors play in the occurrence of PPS. For instance, if an individual was waiting for a phone call in a noisy environment then their brain may become more sensitive to incoming auditory stimuli in an effort to seek out the correct stimuli, which is the ringtone. This is when PPS could potentially be more likely to occur, as the brain seeks out and misinterprets incoming stimuli.

A relatable scenario of mobile device users is thinking you have received a notification and instinctively reaching for your phone only to realise nothing has been received, followed by a feeling of disappointment. This leads to a feedback loop of your brain searching for the stimuli that informs you that you have received a notification which represents the rewarding social behaviour that is a connection with another person. This feedback loop fits into the ideas of affect theory (Stern, cited in Murphy 2010). People get into a rhythm of sorts with their devices as they check and re-check them over the course of the day. The mobile phone has become an extension of people (Daviel 2017), much like McLuhan’s (1964) idea of media being an extension of people. People are in sync with their devices, and PPS is becoming a part of this loop. As mentioned earlier in the paper, the normalisation of PPS observed through the low percentage of individuals that find the occurrences bothersome shows that people are becoming one with their devices, and creating a feedback loop of constant interaction. Students in a study that asked them to disconnect from media for 24 hours showed the students reported that media (and especially their mobile phones) have become an extension of themselves (24 Hours: Unplugged 2010). Students felt as though they had lost apart of themselves once their devices were no longer with them, and they reported feeling disconnected and lost. Some students felt they had lost their identity with the loss of their device, prompting them to think about how much of their virtual life influenced their ‘real life’. PPS could be seen as evidence that mobile devices are directly affecting us and the way we act. Entering into “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” (Palihapitiya in Haynes 2018) of device usage shows that both the individual and the device are feeding off each other to operate in synchronicity. While in sync however, this does not necessarily mean in harmony, as the prevalence of PPS and its normalisation shows.

I myself often experience occurrences of PPS in the form of misinterpreted vibrations, sounds, and lights. I have a Samsung S8 mobile device which runs the android operating system. My device is always set to vibrate mode, so this means that any incoming messages or calls will make my phone vibrate as opposed to ring out loud. All notifications will also vibrate, some having different strength or length of vibration to indicate which app is sending me a notification. Samsung devices also have a light notification system where a small LED at the top of the screen will light up a certain colour to indicate what type of notification you have received (Samsung 2019). I would say that I experience physical (vibration), visual (LED), and auditory stimuli from my device. I say auditory because when on certain surfaces (e.g. a table top), the vibration makes a sound against the surface. My experiences of PPS relate mostly to levels of stress I am experiencing as explored by Lin et al. (2013), and the situation or context in which I am receiving stimuli is, as looked at by Sauer et al. (2015).

In terms of device dependency, I would say that I have a low-level dependency. I think this can be seen in instances where I hear my alarm ringtone ringing from someone else’s device. I only use this ringtone for waking up in the mornings, and so the sound has a negative response from my brain generally. When hearing it from someone else’s device I will be overcome with a feeling of dread before I’ve even been able to process what I have heard. I believe this can be explained through affect theory (Stern, cited in Murphy 2010) because it shows the bodies unconscious reaction from the device. While this may be a mild reaction, I still believe it shows signs of dependency.

The PPS I experience comes in the form of thinking that I have felt a vibration, thinking that I have heard my device vibrate against a surface, or thinking that I have seen the LED blinking to indicate a notification has been received. If under higher levels of stress, then I begin to experience more instances of PPS and I believe this is due to the dopamine response that the brain experiences when experiencing perceived positive social behaviour (Haynes 2018). Under stress the brain would most likely be looking for a break in the form of a dopamine hit, so would heighten its senses in an effort to interpret incoming stimuli, leading to instances of PPS. I think that most of my experiences with PPS would stem from this dopamine related theory. Other times I experience PPS is when I am waiting for messages or calls back that I deem important. By placing importance on these responses, my brain would again heighten its sensitivity to incoming stimuli, leading to a higher chance of misinterpretation.

An interesting form of PPS that I experience that has not been observed in any studies that I came across is the misinterpretation of visual stimuli leading to PPS. When I have my device placed somewhere in sight with the screen facing up, I will be able to see the LED light up when I have not been able to feel or hear the notification. Often, I will mistake light reflection on the screen for the LED notification and proceed to check for a notification, much like if I had felt a vibration or heard a ring. I find this interesting because it shows that these misinterpretations of stimuli are not only limited to physical or auditory misinterpretations. This would mean that if waiting for an important message for example that three main senses of the body could be heightened in an effort to interpret stimuli. It is interesting to wonder what this means for brain functionality/efficiency during these times.

The study of PPS is still in its infancy and there are many further directions that studies could be taken. Deb (2014) suggests that a formal criteria be developed so that the condition can be diagnosed. This would also mean that PPS will need to be seen as a condition as opposed to a phenomenon. It will also be important to vary the ages of participants in future studies, as currently most studies available are of younger aged individuals. A better understanding of mobile phone dependency will make it easier to draw connections between usage patterns and occurrences of PPS. More importance must be placed on treatment of PPS in future studies. The lack of concern by participants (Drouin et al. 2012; Lin et al. 2013) is a cause for concern and this must be addressed, possible through the implementation of follows ups with participants as well as the development of treatment plans for individuals (Deb 2014). Deb also believes that it is important to begin building profiles of individuals who would be prone to PPS, creating a clearer picture of who may be susceptible to PPS. This could also lead to the introduction of prevention methods by being able to clearly understand warning signs and spot individuals experiencing PPS. By being able to recognise at risk individuals, this could also lead to the prevention of device dependency or addiction. Drouin et al. (2012) state that the link between PPS and social anxiety is an area that is worth exploring, as it might find answers to back up the theory that PPS is another version of social anxiety and sensitivity. Future studies should also look to include the visual aspect of notifications and sensory stimuli as mentioned in the autoethnographic section of this paper. As Samsung is leading the global smartphone market (Mourdoukoutas 2018), it would seem that the majority of smart phone users would be experiencing the LED notification system, and potentially PPS in the form of misinterpreted visual stimuli. Also, once more in general is known about device dependency and addiction then it will open up a lot of possibilities for other aspects of device related phenomenon (eg. PPS) to be better understood and studied further.

Although the study of PPS is still in its infancy, there has still been sufficient cases to show that the phenomenon is a growing cause for concern. With the number of mobile phone users growing globally every year, you can assume the rates of PPS and device dependency will also grow. Through observation of already conducted studies it can be seen that PPS is a sign of device dependency. The severity of the dependency depends on factors leading to the PPS shown by the individual. As more studies are conducted into factors that lead to PPS, it will become easier to tell who is more susceptible to PPS, or if more serious issues are possible stemming from the PPS.



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