Ever been walking around or chatting with a friend, and then feel your phone vibrate in your pocket? Desperate, you pull it out–was it a text from your significant other? Or perhaps someone you want to become your significant other? Either way, when you unlock your phone, you find that you actually have no notifications to speak of. So why do we feel our phones go off when they don’t? What are these unexplained vibrations? Let’s talk about “phantom phone syndrome.”
Phantom Phone Syndrome
Yeah, we weren’t too thrilled when we looked this up and the first returns were “HEALTH ALERT: PHANTOM PHONE SYNDROME.”
If it makes you feel any better, a study at Georgia Tech showed something like 90% of the students there had felt these sensations at some point. Which means if you’re feeling these phantom Twitter pokes, you’re definitely not the only one. This is a real phenomenon with a scary name.
If you’ve experienced a phantom vibration before, you may also sometimes hear your phone going off–especially if you’re one of those people who always has their ringer on. Research at other Universities has yielded similar results.
Why Phantom Ringing?
Obviously there’s some conditioning going on when it comes to our phantom feelings. However, when it comes to ringing, part of the reason you’re hearing the ghost of your cell phone is the design of your own ear. The vast majority of people are hypersensitive to noises within 1,000 and 6,000 hertz. And it just so happens that cell phone noises are within this range.
Take a noise that you’re looking out for almost all the time and put it in a frequency your body is fine-tuned to listen for through the power of biology? Yeah, you’re gonna mistake hearing that noise.
History of Phantom Phone Syndrome
The use of “phantom vibration syndrome” didn’t start cropping up until 2003. And it makes sense, since those fun little flip phones we used to have made their appearances in the commercial market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, similar phenomena was also reportedly observed with the advent of pagers.
In 2007, some researchers tried to coin the term “ringxiety,” but as you can see, we’re not using that word so you can see how well it stuck. There’s also “hypobivochondria,” but “phantom phone syndrome” just seems a lot easier.
Why Do You Feel Your Phone Go Off When it Doesn’t?
Phantom vibrations are actually caused through a mechanism pretty similar to our phantom ringing. We’ve just conditioned ourselves over time to become hypersensitive to our own ringtones or the sensation of our phones vibrating. So it follows that anything vaguely similar to those sensations would make us think our phones are going off.
The thing is, we know that this behavior has only cropped up since the advent of smartphone technology–no surprise there. But the way this behavior manifests seems to concern some psychologists. Whether or not phantom sensations are bothersome to you, they are still technically hallucinations, and our phantom sensations are likely rooted somewhere in our base fear of missing out. Which is a long way to say, you’re unconsciously anxious about your phone notifications (or you’re very consciously anxious about it).
On paper, this ends up looking a lot like we’ve been trained by our smartphones to have mild symptoms of obsessive-compulsive behavior. This sounds really alarmist, but of people who reported phantom vibrations, the vast majority across a handful of surveys indicate phantom vibrations/ringers don’t bother them at all. You’ve probably got a pretty good gauge on how much the condition affects your life too anyway.
Long short; it’s probably not going to be a huge problem for the average person, but it can be a slippery slope for some people. Heck, with the relatively recent advent of smartphones, there’s basically an entire subclass of OCD dedicated to smartphone obsession.
What Should You Do?
Honestly, phantom vibrations and ringers are super common. Plus, if you’ve felt/heard them, you’re already functioning fine. It’s unlikely that you’ll see a massive life improvement over the condition.
Research into smartphones and human psychology has been sparse, while also having somewhat conflicting data. So if you want to find some super alarmist research about how your smartphone is killing you, you’ll find that. If you want to find the exact opposite, you’ll find that. Smartphones are just too new for us to truly understand their long term impacts.
That uncertainty in and of itself is probably why people tend to panic over new technology. Either way we could probably benefit from a little less anxiety in our day. So if missing notifications does make you legitimately anxious, some time off would probably do you well.
We could all probably do with healthier screen habits anyway.
Even television characters get phone anxiety it seems. See if you know who we’re talking about here.