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'Kosher phones' contrast makes study possible

Cellphone obsessives are grinding their teeth, losing sleep — Israeli study

Saying symptoms are related to FOMO, researchers find those with smartphone dependency are physically hurting themselves

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Commuters look at their smartphones as they walk through a subway station in Beijing, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Commuters look at their smartphones as they walk through a subway station in Beijing, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The fear of missing out, or FOMO, can lead to actual physical pain, Israeli researchers are claiming.

They focused specifically on FOMO as manifested by cellphone fixation for fear of missing messages, posts or notifications. The researchers found a direct correlation between device dependency and two markers of stress and anxiety: teeth grinding and jaw pain. People who are less attached to their phones also sleep better, with less interrupted shut-eye.

“We believe these symptoms are related to FOMO, fear of missing out,” said Dr. Pessia Friedman-Rubin, of Tel Aviv University’s dental school. “People are constantly using their phones because they are worried they will miss something, and check WhatsApp, Facebook and other apps.

“This creates a cycle of growing dependency on cellphones, which leads to feelings of stress and anxiety, and the feeling that someone might write something on social media and I’ll miss it and not be in the loop. In short, phones are actually causing many people stress, and we’re seeing physical manifestations of this.”

A woman suffering from jaw pain (fizkes via iStock by Getty Images)

Friedman-Rubin and her team took advantage of a uniquely Israeli characteristic of electronics usage, in the study that integrated the Ph.D. thesis of her student Dr. Yitzhak Hochhäuser, a member of Israel’s Haredi community.

Many ultra-Orthodox people shun regular smartphones and have so-called kosher phones instead — devices stripped of social media and most other apps, at the advice of rabbis.

Among regular smartphone users, 45 percent have a moderate-to-high need to constantly have their phones available and some 50% feel their phone causes them a moderate-to-high level of stress. Among kosher phone users, only 22% feel the need to be available and only 20% think their device causes them stress.

Writing in a peer-reviewed academic article soon to be published in the journal Quintessence International, the researchers reported a far higher incidence of anxious habits among regular smartphone users, and suggested it is due to their phone habits. The study involved 600 people, aged 18 to 35.

A teacher holding up his cellular phone certificating that it is a ‘kosher’ one, at the entrance to an Ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem on May 6, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Some 24% of regular smartphone users reported teeth grinding during the day, and 21% at night, while for kosher phone users the figures were 6% and 7.5%, respectively. Some 29% of people who have regular devices suffered pain in their jaw muscles, but only 14% of the kosher phone users experience this pain.

Illustrative image: smartphone addiction concept. (myella via iStock by Getty Images)

At night, 54% of regular smartphone users find themselves waking up when they want to be asleep, contrasted to 20% of kosher phone users.

Dr. Pessia Friedman-Rubin (courtesy of Pessia Friedman-Rubin)

Friedman-Rubin said that her team wanted to probe the possibility that factors other than cellphone use, such as general cultural gaps between secular and religious Israelis, impacted results, so they delved closer into patterns of device use among study participants.

“We didn’t just find differences between the groups, but also clear patterns showing that the more you use your smartphone the more likely you are to hurt from jaw pain, grind your teeth, and wake in the night,” she said. “We did very complex statistical work and saw if you separate out other factors, cellphone use is most likely to account for the patterns of behavior we saw.”

Asked whether it’s possible that smartphones aren’t causing stress, but rather an outlet for stress, which may explain the correlation, Friedman-Rubin said this hypothesis doesn’t match comments provided by participants on questionnaires. Many presented smartphones as a source of stress, she commented.

Friedman-Rubin said that the research isn’t intended to denigrate smartphone technology, but does suggest that people should set limits.

“We are of course in favor of technological progress, but as with everything in life, the excessive use of smartphones can lead to negative symptoms,” Friedman-Rubin said. “It is important that the public is aware of the consequences it has on the body and mind.”

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