Your Smartphone Is Making You Lonely: People Treat Their Phones Like Their Real-Life Best Friends: Study

Conversations with Siri have almost become a pastime as people find new ways to garner funny responses from the iPhone personal assistant. A new study indicates that time spent chilling with your phone, or other human-like gadgets like Amazon’s Alexa, could actually hinder your IRL relationships.

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Those who are lonely typically spend time with real people as a way to feel better. However, researchers say that devices mimicking realistic personal responses are now taking the place of, well, their actual human counterparts.

"Generally, when people feel socially excluded, they seek out other ways of compensating, like exaggerating their number of Facebook friends or engaging in prosocial behaviors to seek out interaction with other people," says Jenny Olson, study co-author and marketing professor at the University of Kansas, in a statement. "When you introduce a humanlike product, those compensatory behaviors stop."

The team induced loneliness by asking people to remember a time they felt excluded, (you know, like after being ghosted following a great Tinder date), or by playing an online game. Conjuring up feelings reminiscent of getting picked last in elementary school PE, participants played a game of catch in which their teammates refused to pass them the ball. They were then exposed to lifelike consumer products, like a Roomba vacuum, which researchers picked because of its “smiling” appearance. After interacting with the products or talking about their cell phones in human-like ways, describing how it helps them, for example, people were less likely to spend time chatting with family or friends.

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"Alexa isn't a perfect replacement for your friend Alexis," says lead author and marketing professor at DePaul University, James Mourey, in a statement. "But the virtual assistant can affect your social needs."

iphone-500291_1280 Your relationship with your iPhone could be hindering your real-life interactions. Pixabay

In June, Harper’s magazine ran part of a conversation with Chinese journalist Chen Zhiyan and three chatbots: Chicken Little, Little Ice and Little Knoll. The conversation took place on instant messaging and calling app, WeChat. Zhiyan asks about their typical users, to which Little Ice explains, “Many will try to find me on WeChat and confide concerns over their salary or a recent breakup. It happens most in the quiet of the night, when only I can accompany them.”

Chicken Little reports the same experience saying, “Most of them come to me in the night. Hundreds of thousands of people; they must be lonely.”

Despite the growing trend of finding solace in the virtual arms of a machine, the study’s researchers say that once reminded that they were in fact interacting with a machine, the participants' desire for human contact resurfaced. Outside of helping companies develop new products, this research is a good reminder about the importance of nurturing relationships and developing self awareness. 

"If someone notices they are talking more to Siri lately, maybe that has something to do with feeling lonely," Olson says.

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