A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Daniela Hernandez explored a new condition that stems from people being a little too much attuned to alerts from their smartphones and smartwatches.
One person reported that, while in yoga class, he felt a soft vibration on his wrist. Yet, when he looked at his watch, expecting to see a message, there was none.
“I glanced at it, but there’s no message,” he said. “Is this a widespread thing? I thought I was just crazy.”
Indeed, the phenomenon has become so prevalent that mental health experts have dubbed the condition “Phantom Phone Syndrome.”
Some people detect a buzz even when they’re not wearing a smartwatch or carrying a cell phone.
According to Michelle Drouin, a psychologist at Purdue University Fort Wayne, “This could really be categorized as a hallucination. You’re feeling something that doesn’t really exist.” She has studied phantom phone alerts, as well as experienced them.
Jacqueline Nisson is a 22-year-old environmental studies student at San Jose University in Northern California. She first tried silencing her Apple Watch notifications to keep the phantoms at bay. That didn’t work. Nor did taking off the watch. Symptoms subsided, but they came back when she put her watch back on.
Such sensations aren’t recognized as a mental health disorder. However, the phenomenon does track the deep reach that personal technology has on the physical and psychological aspects of people.
Zachary Lipton is a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He experiences phantom notifications even when he isn’t carrying his phone.
“I’m sure it’s linked to my anxiety,” he says. “You realize you’re conditioned like some post-trauma, battered animal. It’s horrible.”
He says he feels obligated to reach for his phone, regardless. The only time he isn’t haunted by the phantom is when he is running, a time when he isn’t tethered to the device.
Scientists say that temporarily removing smartwatches and setting aside smartphones helps decrease the anticipation that can lead to phantom vibrations.
“The longer you’re away from your device,” says, Dr. Drouin, “the more likely you won’t experience these false signals.”
One man has solved the problem by wearing an analog watch most of the time and limiting use of his Apple watch to when he is exercising.
According to researchers, Phantom Phone Syndrome is related to the social media fear of missing out, or the so labelled FOMO. Another condition, nomophobia, refers to the terror of not having a working phone.
Among the studies available on the subject, one conducted in 2017 at a university in Iran found that nearly half of 400 medical students experienced phantom phone vibrations or heard their phone ring when it didn’t.
Other terms for Phantom Phone Syndrome are “ringxiety” and “vibranxiety.” Another is “FauxCellArm.” The latter refers to the more common affliction known as phantom limb, which is the feeling of pain or other sensations in the place where a limb once was.
Robert Rosenberger is a professor of philosophy at Georgia Institute of Technology. He studies how technology shapes human experience. He says that Phantom Phone Syndrome isn’t much different from people forgetting they have taken off their glasses and absentmindedly reach for them. Dr. Rosenberger says that he has felt a buzz when his phone is across the room and takes comfort in knowing that other people have experienced the same thing.
“It’s unsettling,” he says. “I had written it off as something that is weird and specific to me, but it’s normal. It’s part of the normal experience of having a phone.”
Celeste Labedz is a 25-year-old geophysics graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. She says, “It’s annoying because I think I’m popular and I’m getting messages, but I’m not.”
She travels to Alaska for research. She isn’t troubled by Phantom Phone Syndrome when she’s there. “There’s no cell reception out there.”
According to the author of the article in the Wall Street Journal, Apple, Inc did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the makers of the Pixel smartphone, Alphabet Inc.’s Google.