Is Your Cell Phone Your Best Friend?

What happens when we confuse tools and relationships

Posted Apr 30, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The moment my students leave class, they grab their cell phones, busily checking and texting. Last week, I even saw a young girl texting in church. Looking down, people cross busy streets, their eyes focused on their cell phones. New signs in my neighborhood tell people, “Don’t text and drive,” and just down the street, a man on the sidewalk was killed when a  car with a “distracted driver” lurched off the road and hit him.

Advanced technology has improved communications--we can call for help in emergencies--but misuse of technology can be dangerous. The danger occurs when, as Henry David Thoreau wrote many years ago, people become “tools of their tools” (Thoreau,1960).  Today, too many people have become addicted to their phones.

What makes our electronic tools so compelling? They ring, they buzz, they vibrate, summoning us with each new text, call, or Facebook post. They offer us intermittent reinforcement, the same uncertain stimulus that sustains gambling addiction. In both cases, we never know when we’ll hit the jackpot.

Our phones have us conditioned. Like obedient dogs, we come when they call, drop what we’re doing to check their messages. For many of us, the phone is no longer a tool but a relationship. Tools are inanimate. Hammers and screwdrivers do not call out and interrupt us. We use them, then put them back in the toolbox. But for some people, cell phones have become their primary relationships. They spend hours gazing at their screens, gently caressing them. Many of my students even sleep with their cell phones and are more comfortable texting than conversing in person.

Research has shown that relating more electronically than in person undermines our capacity for empathy and that constant interruptions interfere with our ability to concentrate (Whybrow, 2015).  Neuroscientists have found that rapidly shifting back and forth between tasks makes us less focused and effective (Foerde, Knowlton, & Poldrack, 2006).  Continual interruptions may undermine our ability to think logically, learn from experience, identify patterns of cause and effect in our lives. And the phone's powerful external stimulus may also affect our sense of agency, our internal locus of control. Research has revealed that locus of control has become less internal, more external in recent years, as more people believe that external forces—fate or powerful others—not their own efforts, determine what happens in their lives (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004; see also Levenson, 1981). External locus of control has been linked to poorer mental and physical health, anxiety, depression, and learned helplessness. (Burger, 1984; Chorpita, 2001; Peterson & Stunkard, 1989)

To restore balance to our lives, Delaney Ruston, physician and producer of Screenagers, recommends setting boundaries: no phones at the dinner table or in the bedroom to reserve time for communication with family members and uninterrupted sleep. Gloria DeGaetano, author of Parenting Well in a Media Age and a specialist in media issues, has founded the Parent Coaching Institute (PCI) in Seattle. Drawing upon the latest brain research, the PCI trains coaches to work with parents, helping them set healthy boundaries to restore balance to their families and support their children’s developing brains (DeGaetano, 2004).

As we navigate through this exciting and challenging electronic age, one thing is clear: we need to remember the difference between our tools and our relationships.


Burger, J. M (1984). Desire for control, locus of control, and proneness to depression. Journal of Personality, 52, 71-88.

Chorpita, B. F. (2001). Control and the development of negative emotion. In. M. W. Vasey & M. R. Dadds (Eds.), The developmental psychopathology of anxiety (pp. 112-142). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

DeGaetano, G. (2004). Parenting well in a media age. Fawnskin, CA: Personhood Press. For information about the Parent Coaching Institute, see To find out about hiring a parent coach, see

Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 11778-11783.

Levenson, H. (1981). Differentiating among internality, powerful others, and chance. In H. M. Lefcourt (Ed.), Research with the locus of control construct. (Vol 1. pp. 15-63). New York: Academic Press.

Peterson, C. & Stunkard, A. J. (1989). Personal control and health promotion. Social Science & Medicine, 28, 819-828.

Screenagers, for the documentary trailer, see

Thoreau, H. D. (1960) Walden. In Walden or life in the woods and “on the duty of civil disobedience” (pp. 1-264). New York, NY: New American Library. Originally published 1854. Quote on page 29.

Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.

Whybrow, P. C. (2015). The well-tuned brain: Neuroscience and the life well lived. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

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