Among the countless indelible images of Hurricane Sandy (and possibly of future storms to come) are the sharing of power strips in the areas lucky enough to have electricity. The very need to make contact is understandably crucial during chaotic times.
So I was not entirely surprised when, days after the storm, a patient walked into my psychotherapy office asking if she could leave her phone on during her session. She said she was more comfortable keeping it nearby in case one of her two sons needed her. But when she said they were ages 22 and 25, it made me wonder about this "connectedness" so many of us need -- not only in stormy times -- but at all times.
I gazed at my own phone perched on my desk, set to vibrate and never answered during sessions, but admittedly in view and within earshot. It got me wondering about our increasing attachment to this sort of technological companionship and its impact on our sense of well-being.
Does this immediate and ever-present access to others serve to ease anxieties about being disconnected? Or has it led to a less positive result, fostering an inability to be alone, especially amongst those who have been attached to these devices from an early age?
I remember the day my husband and I decided to purchase mobile phones for our four children. It was 2001, the day the planes hit the World Trade Center. Up until then, the notion of teens (let alone grade school kids) having their own phone seemed unnecessarily indulgent. We lived in Manhattan, so those few hours after the attack meant a frantic search to gather our scattered children. Unable to call them, we had to physically get to where they were -- an idea that now seems almost unimaginable -- just to know they were safe.
It was the anxiety during those hours of crisis that led to a family decision: a cell phone plan for all six of us -- yes, even our fifth-grader -- with each member getting their own number. They were to be used in emergencies, to help us deal with a world that now seemed filled with imminent danger.
Fast-forward, and those once simple flip phones have morphed into multiple versions of sophisticated "smart" ones. Like many city kids, ours have grown up carrying theirs in their backpacks or back pockets, used whenever and wherever, for much more than emergencies only. From Facebook and Twitter, to Google Maps and Yelp, these phones are their lifelines. To be without one would be like walking around without shoes or leaving home without keys. It would feel strange, off kilter, like something was missing.
And, they are not alone. According to a recent study conducted by SecurEnvoy, two-thirds of the 1,000 people surveyed said they were afraid of being without their phone -- a fear some call "nomophobia" (no-mobile-phone-phobia). More men carry two phones -- the second often used for work -- while women tend to carry one. But more women (70 percent) than men (61 percent) said they worried about losing theirs. And, as we might expect, 18- to 24-year-olds were more "nomophobic" than those between ages 25-34.
Another study on the cell phone habits of people ages 18-54 showed that, on average, phones are checked about 34 times a day -- a number that would likely be higher if the sample included only Gen Y and X-ers. These phone checks, according to the report, occur within 10 minutes of each other and last less than 30 seconds. According to UCSF neuroscientist Loren Frank, phone checking is often a compulsive behavior. "We don't even consciously realize we're doing it -- it's an unconscious behavior."
So, we have a generation of young adults who, due to no fault of their own, have grown dependent on continuous technological connection. They have been able to reach -- or be reached by -- parents and friends at the touch of a button for most of their lives. Many have faced normal developmental challenges using smartphones and the help made readily available by them. Called the "Wikipedia generation," these youngsters have so much information at their fingertips that they've become accustomed to using little effort to find out what they need to know. While their parents may have ventured out into adulthood, struggling to navigate the world on their own, these kids know "there's an app for all that."
From this perspective, can we really expect self-reliance from a generation that has rarely faced it? Can frustration or loneliness be tolerated if these feelings have been avoided? How will kids gain independence when they have constant companions like Siri by their side? One only has to notice the visible panic at the mere thought of a lost phone -- or the immediacy with which it has to be replaced -- to recognize the role these electronic security blankets have played in our children's lives.
So, while some of life's anxieties may have been eased by the opportunity to always be connected, we have unwittingly fostered a new kind of dependency. And as with all addictions, there is now a potential for withdrawal should that dependency be denied. During Sandy, we saw both sides: the benefits of connecting through cell phones, as well as the frustrations for those who lost access to them. We also witnessed the value of one-on-one human contact in the palpable pleasure and out-pouring of emotions when actual volunteers arrived to help.
In a recent session I had with a newly married couple, the wife told me that one of the things she liked about our sessions was that she could reliably share an hour with her husband without any interruptions. Both of them silenced their phones and Blackberries -- between them there were four -- a behavior they never practiced at home. The ability to stay focused on each other, physically and emotionally, while disconnecting from the outside world seemed uniquely special to them.
In this age of anxiety, there seems to be, after all, a deep yearning for genuine human connection and real-life interaction devoid of electronic distraction. The question is, will future generations have the capacity to attain it and sustain it? What do you think?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.