A man grabs his phone out of his jean pocket.
Each time you redirect attention to your phone, it takes about 23 minutes to return to your previous level of focus. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Almost all of us have had it happen. You feel your cell phone buzzing, you pull it out of your pocket, and … nothing. No phone call. No text messages. No alerts.

They’re called phantom vibrations—and about 90 percent of people admit to feeling them, according to two peer-reviewed studies.

“We’re all just responding to something we’ve been conditioned to respond to,” said Brittany Barber Garcia, PhD, who specializes in pediatric psychology at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “We’re conditioned to feel these buzzes, look at our phone, and see a text or notification, which is our reward for looking at it.”

Because of this, each time you feel that buzzing—real or imagined—you’re more likely to respond. “It’s pure behavior psychology at its finest.”

“As it happens again and again, we become more conditioned,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Especially if the result is a positive one, like a text or a message that makes us feel good. We’re becoming more and more used to that, especially younger kids and teenagers, because they spend even more time on their smart devices.”

Paying a ‘switch-cost’

More than 90 percent of students and hospital workers surveyed said the phantom vibrations bothered them “a little” or “slightly” to “not at all.”

But every time you take your focus off a task, there’s a “switch-cost,” experts say. One recent study from the University of California-Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes to return to one’s prior level of productivity after they’ve been interrupted from their work.

The study wasn’t specific to smartphone-related interruptions, but those buzzes, phantom or otherwise, “do pull our attention away,” Dr. Barber Garcia says. “That’s exactly what we’re supposed to do. They re-orient our brains to focus on them.”

People might not even remember they’re experiencing these phantom buzzes, or how frequently they’re checking their cell phones, experts said.

Young adults use their phones, on average, more than five hours per day. More strikingly, they also use them twice as much as they think they do, a sign that smartphone checking is habitual, according to researchers.

The perils of youth

Although some researchers and onlookers have called the phantom vibrations a “syndrome” or described them as “hallucinations,” Dr. Barber Garcia doesn’t see it as a “major medical concern.”

They are, however, a potential concern for teenagers and younger populations.

“It’s different for teenagers because with social media and all that is going on their phones, it has zillions of reasons to buzz,” she said. “Not only do they receive text messages and phone calls, but they receive notifications from up to a dozen different social media apps.

“In a lot of ways, adolescents are expected to respond to all of these notifications in a way that adults are not. That’s how they socialize and interact with the world. If they miss a text, miss a Snapchat or some other social notification, they’re out of the loop. It leads to heightened anxiety, which leads to increased attention to their phones.”

She also believes the number of people who have negative reactions to the buzzes could grow.

“One of the interesting pieces in the study was people who had strong emotional reactions found them more bothersome,” she said. “Teenagers and younger populations are more likely to have stronger emotional connections to their phones, because it is how they are used to connecting with their peers.”

This will likely be true of future generations, which means the size of this group is going to expand, Barber Garcia said.

It can also affect students in the classroom, or while studying at home. When students are constantly checking their phones—and anticipating those notifications—they’re not effectively absorbing the material they’re listening to or reading about.

“Our brains do a lot of things at once, but can’t truly multi-task,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Students can’t know everything happening on their phone and everything going on in the classroom at the same.”

So what’s the solution?

Dr. Barber Garcia suggests having short hiatuses from your phone, even as little as 30 minutes or an hour per day. This can make you accustomed to not having it around. As your brain becomes used to those non-phone periods, the anxiety linked to “missing” something will lessen, she said.

You might even see an uptick in your productivity during those times.

There’s a significant and growing body of research that workers who limit their checking of e-mails are more productive. That’s also likely true of people who limit the number of times they check their phones during the day, experts said.