A 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.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.
- Flanagan, O. (2013). The shame of addiction. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00120
- Rosen, L. (2012), iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
- Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
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