arek_malang/Shutterstock
Source: arek_malang/Shutterstock

You’ve temporarily misplaced your cell phone and anxiously retrace your steps to try to find it. Or perhaps you never let go of your phone—it's always in your hand, your pocket, or your bag, ready to be answered or consulted at a moment’s notice. When new models come out, you feel bad about saying goodbye to your electronic pal. And when your battery life runs down at the end of the day, you feel that yours is running low as well. New research shows that there’s a psychological reason for such extreme phone dependence: According to the attachment theory perspective, for some of us, our phone serves the same function as the teddy bear we clung to in childhood.

Attachment theory proposes that our early life experiences with the major figures responsible for our well-being, namely parents or other caregivers, are at the root of our connections to the adults with whom we form close relationships. Importantly, attachment in early life can extend to inanimate objects. Teddy bears, for example, serve as what the attachment theorist D.W. Winnicott calls “transitional objects.” The teddy bear, unlike the parent, is always there. When children can’t be with their parents, they can still be with their teddy bear. These stuffed animals also serve as a transition between dependence and independence when young children begin to develop a separate sense of self. We extend our dependence on caregivers to these animals, and use them to help us move to greater autonomy and an independent sense of self.

As suggested by Veronika Konok, of the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, a cell phone has the potential to be a “compensatory attachment” object. Although phones are often castigated for their addictive potential, Konok and her collaborators cite evidence that supports the idea that “healthy, well-functioning adults also report significant emotional attachment to special objects” (p. 538).

Indeed, cell phones have become a pervasive feature of our lives: The number of cell phone subscriptions exceeds the total population of the planet. The average amount of mobile or smartphone use in the U.S. is 3.3 hours per day; young adults (ages 18 to 24) report 5.2 hours on an average day. People also like to be near their phones: A 2013 survey cited by the Hungarian team reports that 79 percent of users keep their phones with them for all but two of their waking hours. Nearly as many people report being distressed when they’re separated from their phone.

As compensatory attachment figures—adult teddy bears—phones have distinct advantages. They can be kept by your side and they provide a social connection to the people you care about. Even if you’re not talking to your friends, lover, or family, you can keep their photos close by, read their messages, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. You can track them in real time but also look back on memorable moments together. These channels help you “feel less alone” (p. 538). You can also play interactive video games with friends and family, swap “pins,” and even share fitness updates and progress on your weight goals. One important distinction the Hungarian team made, taking this into account, is the difference between using a cell phone as an actual phone and using it as a smartphone. (Previous research on cell phone behavior, including use of phones as attachment figures, only focused on their direct communications functions.)

The purpose of Konok's research was to determine the extent to which phones, both mobile and smartphones, serve as attachment figures. To that end, her team administered a standard attachment-style questionnaire, which assesses two dimensions of attachment style—anxious (“I find that people are never there when you need them”) and avoidant (“I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others”). 

They measured phone attachment on a Mobile Attachment Scale (MAS) with items that sought to capture the need for proximity (“If I left my phone at home, I would be willing to go home for it") and the need for closeness (“I’m nervous if I can’t be reached on the phone"). Participants were also asked to indicate the frequency of their phone function use, such as texting, chatting, playing games, and browsing the internet.

The sample, which consisted of 142 Hungarians ages 18 to 25 (two-thirds were female), completed their online questionnaires in one brief session. In general, if the authors were hoping to find a good distribution of scores on the mobile phone attachment scale, they would have been disappointed. Most of the young adults in this sample scored at about a four on a five-point scale, indicating a strong desire to be near their phone and a feeling of distress when they are separated from it.

Relevant to the main questions of interest was whether the clingiest phone users differed in attachment style from the ordinary, already phone-attached young adults in this sample. The MAS items were divided into two subscales—the need for contact and need for proximity. The anxiously attached weren’t particularly likely to need to be near their phones. However, the scores of the entire sample were already so high on the proximity scale that it became statistically impossible to detect that relationship.

Those high in anxious attachment were higher on the need for contact subscale, meaning that they felt they needed to be near their phone so that they could be reached and could reach others in chats and social network sites. Rather than improve the psychological outcomes for the anxiously attached, communication via cell phone may actually make things worse. As the authors note, "The reliance on the outside validation of their inner states through the mobile (and internet) communication may increase their dependence on others and also expose them to the danger of oversharing’” (pp. 542-543).

The upshot: We apparently never outgrow our need for some form of teddy bear. For people with a more anxious form of attachment style, the teddy bear they need is one that keeps them connected to their larger social world. If you’ve become unable to get through your day without holding your phone and frequently checking your social networks, it may be time to question whether you can find fulfillment in your connections with others in a real rather than virtual space.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Reference

Konok, V., Gigler, D., Bereczky, B. M., and Miklósi, Á. (2016). Humans' attachment to their mobile phones and its relationship with interpersonal attachment style. Computers in Human Behavior, 6,1537-547. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.062

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

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