How Our Intimacy Needs Can Fuel a Phone ‘Addiction’

Teenage boy hiding while using a mobile phoneA few days ago, a teenager came in for an “emergency” session at the behest of her mother. Her high school had initiated a new policy that phones were not to be present in the classroom, and the teacher had demanded that she hand over her device. She ran sobbing from the classroom, unaware that her phone would be returned at the end of that class. “I just got really, really scared,” she told me. “That phone is my best friend!”

A different person gets deeply annoyed in therapy sessions when I refer to her Samsung phone as her device. She says that makes it seem less friendly somehow. She’s reluctant to silence it for our sessions, and told me she feels relieved that she can send and receive texts when her phone vibrates at concerts and performances.

As for me, I confess to a frisson of panic when I’m traveling and lose track of my cell phone—those “I love you” texts from my spouse cheer me and inspire me as I navigate from place to place.

Yes, I have a relationship with my phone, and hearing the two notes that signal a text message makes my heart flutter a bit, especially if I’m feeling lonely or isolated. I don’t interrupt sessions to grab my phone when I hear texts arrive, but I eagerly check after people leave my office. After all, it’s probably my sweetheart!

I believe that many of us are addicted to our phones, but let me explain. I like to describe addiction as “a pathological attachment to a mood-altering experience.” Pathological implies “not healthy.” The mood-altering experience, in this case, is that thrilling rush of dopamine and adrenaline that courses through the body when a message comes in.

An Attachment Resulting from Fear and Anxiety?

Larry Rosen teaches at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He’s written an entire book about our relationships with phones titled iDisorder: Understanding our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. He suggests that a pathological attachment to a phone is due to fear or anxiety that we might be missing something. Personally, I also think our phones represent a very human need for intimacy, or to be connected.

Reading words on a screen, however, is no substitute for listening to someone as we gaze into their eyes. I fear that’s the experience the teenage girl I’m working with and her peers are not experiencing. Most of us are spending increasing amounts of time looking at our screens instead of looking at the stars, trees, or one another.

How Our Phones Interrupt Intimacy

In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle points out that we break the intimacy possible in many social situations by turning to our phones. I’ve taken to introducing this topic when I begin work with anyone and ask about their relationship with their phone. Many people laugh nervously and admit that they do feel, well, attached. One man recently held up his device and spoke for many by saying, “She’s always available, and I can’t say that for any people I know.” People I The truth is, we all need intimacy and want it desperately. The trick is learning to put away your devices and allow others to see into you. speak with are often embarrassed and sometimes ashamed about this, and shame is one of the clearest hallmarks of addiction.

We’re all more and more “alone together,” as Turkle writes, and this loneliness increases our very human need for genuine intimacy. Turning to the mood-altering experience that a smartphone delivers often makes the pathological attachment grow stronger.

Research shows how behavioral addiction usually carries with it shame, which often makes people not want to talk about their relationship with their phones. The truth is, we all need intimacy and want it desperately. The trick is learning to put away your devices and allow others to see into you. I believe life will be fuller and richer when we all do this.


  1. Flanagan, O. (2013). The shame of addiction. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4,
  2. Rosen, L. (2012), iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  3. Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Maddie

    October 7th, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    We haven’t done a very good job of teaching today’s kids that intimacy is not something that you will ever get form a phone. Intimacy is real, it is when you are face to face with someone and you make that connection. The phone can be a line to that person but should never be used as a substitute for that.

  • Nolan R

    October 8th, 2015 at 12:14 PM

    There are so many people who are simply looking to have intimacy with another person, and when they do not have this in their everyday lives the temptation is great to go online and seek that connection out. I am not saying that it is the healthiest thing in the world but I think that the people who get addicted and live on their phones and online are looking to fill a void in their lives t hat is not being met otherwise.

  • Jeanette

    October 9th, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    It’s only natural that you would seek this out if this is something that you feel like is missing. It’s just sad that someone would feel like the only intimacy that they have a chance to have in life is online or via their phone.

  • Rowe

    October 12th, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    I do admit that when I am a little lonely I find myself texting and on social media a lot more because there is something that is comforting to me about it… sort of like a lifeline into other people’s lives/.

  • farrah

    October 14th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    I sure do wish that there could be another way to meet those intimate needs that via our interaction with such an inanimate object

  • Leigh P.

    October 15th, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    We all have our needs and for some their phone just happens to be it. It is what they feel will help to keep them in touch and connected with other people in their lives, so I know that the new school policies against phones could really be detrimental to some students.

  • Mike

    November 5th, 2015 at 7:10 PM

    I really don’t think always being on your phone is a problem when you are keeping in touch with family and friends when you are alone. But if you are in a classroom full of people and you are supposed to be there listening to your teacher and participating in the lesson, then any phone is a distraction. Some of us have no social contact at all and even though I have the latest smart phone, it never gets used because I have nobody to call or text so a phone can not fix social isolation unless you already have the social contacts.

  • Alisha

    November 12th, 2018 at 11:41 AM

    wow people can be that addicted to their phones and the teachers are only taking it away for a short time not forever

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