Are You Having a Secret Affair
with Your Smartphone?

Media Equation and Smartphone Dependency

Cartoon Media Equation

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Are You Having a Secret Affair with Your Smartphone?

A cyberpsychology study commissioned by Kaspersky Lab shows that users tend to treat their computers and smartphones as humans

If Fred Flintstone had had a smartphone, would he have ventured online as cavalierly as we do today? Probably. These behaviour patterns, which stem from the early period of our brains' development and were formed about 1.8 million years ago, are still influencing our attitudes to today’s devices, including computers, smartphones and tablets. Seemingly irrational behaviour, however, appears entirely consistent when examined in the light of evolution. Cyberpsychologists are currently researching new forms of the “Media Equation”[1] and IT security experts are supporting users by making it easy to protect their favourite gadgets—against, for example, the 315,000 new malware programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab every day.

Consumers are becoming particularly emotionally attached to the latest digital device. A study carried out by IDC in 2013 postulates that an American’s best friend is their smartphone[2]. These devices were constantly within the reach of the 7,446 US Americans surveyed, from morning till night. Around 80 percent of those surveyed checked their smartphones for messages every 15 minutes. Users also tended to think that they heard their phones ringing—even when they weren’t.

The ARIS market research institute assessed this “phantom ringing” phenomenon for the industry association BITKOM through surveys carried out in 2011 and 2013.[3] Within two years, the number of users who believed they heard their phones ringing increased from 25 to 39 percent. Behind this phenomenon is the knowledge that smartphones expands users’ social spheres to include friends and acquaintances who are not physically nearby. Accordingly, German users became anxious if they received no notifications from their smartphones: 29 percent found it strange if they received no calls or messages in a day.

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop [4]

People have long had a love-hate relationship with their computers. How many users have never cursed their computers, perhaps even pounding their fists on the keyboard, when a device failure caused hours’ worth of work to disappear into a digital blackhole?

“We researchers call this the ‘media equation’”, explains Frank Schwab, a professor of media psychology at the University of Würzburg. “As soon as something—like a computer—seems to interact with us, ancient scripts begin running in our brains.” Almost instinctively, we treat the object like a conscious being, even though, objectively speaking, doing so makes no sense. We use the term “media equation” to describe this practice of equating a media device with a living being. It means that it’s perfectly possible to hate computers, while at the same time remaining aware that they’re just machines.

“A device doesn’t even need to be cool for this phenomenon to take effect. The initial research was carried out using PCs at the beginning of the 1980s,”[5] Schwab explains. “What is interesting about it is that we can’t really help doing it. People who are extremely knowledgeable about computers tend particularly towards media equation.”

If a computer praises us for a test result, it increases our self-esteem and our willingness to perform. We also want to continue working with that computer and consider it a particularly good one[6]. If we are asked by the same computer about its performance, we assess it more positively than we would a different device. And, of course, we perceive the computer as either a man or a woman—particularly if he or she talks to us in an appropriately male or female voice[7].

Kaspersky Lab: Malware Programs Can Be Relationship Killers

“For the average user, a laptop or a smartphone is a black box. They don’t always understand the symptoms they observe in their digital companions. Why is it crashing? Is it due to a program error, or could it be a hardware issue? Why is my computer suddenly so slow? Is it just a highly fragmented hard drive, or too little memory? Is a semi-legal adware program slowing down the computer, or could it have been hijacked by cybercriminals? Is it now part of a botnet performing tasks under a stranger’s control?” asks Holger Suhl, General Manager DACH at Kaspersky Lab.

The fact is that popular technical devices like PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets have to contend with malware programs and cybercriminals. The greatest problem facing PCs is the huge number of viruses, worms and Trojans that today’s devices have to deal with — Kaspersky Lab is currently discovering 315,000 separate malware programs each day. Macs’ biggest risk is becoming part of a botnet. The Flashfake zombie network, for example, had 670,000 computers — most of them Macs — under its control[8]. Now, even smartphones and tablets must face the increasing volume and quality of mobile pests. Kaspersky Lab currently recognises about 350.000 distinct mobile viruses and more than 840 virus families, 99 percent of which target Android.

If devices become infected with malware programs, this can cause problems for users. Blackmailing software, for example, may block access to their computers, or device performance can be reduced by a Trojan's secret activity. In the context of the media equation, the relationship between computers and humans would be most improved by users protecting their digital darlings adequately against Internet dangers. Contemporary combination solutions like Kaspersky Internet Security — Multi-Device[9] provide straightforward protection for all major platforms, including Windows, Mac and Android.



[2] — Always Connected – How Smartphones And Social Keep Us Engaged. An IDC Research Report, Sponsored By Facebook. (2013).


[4] Clifford Nass, Corina Yen: The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines, Penguin Group 2010; ISBN 1-101-43871-1

[5] — Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge University Press.

[6] — Fogg, B. J. & Nass, C. (1997). Silicon sycophants: The effects of computers that flatter. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 46, 551-561.

[7] — Nass, C. & Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and mindlessness: Social responses to computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.



About Kaspersky Lab

Kaspersky Lab is the world's largest privately held vendor of endpoint protection solutions. The company is ranked among the world's top four vendors of security solutions for endpoint users*. Throughout its more than 16-year history Kaspersky Lab has remained an innovator in IT security and provides effective digital security solutions for large enterprises, SMBs and consumers. Kaspersky Lab, with its holding company registered in the United Kingdom, currently operates in almost 200 countries and territories across the globe, providing protection for over 300 million users worldwide. Learn more at

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About Cyberpsychology:

Our Psyche Under the Influence of the Internet

The Internet has become today’s defining medium and considerably influences the behaviour of many people. Our experiences in social media, our relationships with end devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops, and the ways in which our immediate physical environment is being artificially expanded by “cyberspace”, are all part and parcel of the field of “media psychology”.

What are social apps, online videos, Internet communities, online shops and chat forums doing to us? If, in the 1960s, TV was postulated as a “second-hand reality”, what effect will the increasing electronic networking of humanity with a variety of increasingly intelligent technologies and end devices have? Are our online lives riskier than our real ones? Do we need digital risk literacy? Could some of us already be cyberpsychos?

Kaspersky Lab researched this question in collaboration with Professor Dr Frank Schwab and Dr Astrid Carolus from the Working Unit for Media Psychology at the University of Würzburg, and will be publishing its findings in an occasional series.