Do You Love Your Smartphone?

Mark Zuckerberg has buckled to tradition and joined the ranks of the married — and he let the world know the change in his “relationship status” by announcing it on Facebook. Just few years ago, the same announcement would have been sent, via press release, to the media and announced in the pages of newspapers or on a news broadcast. The news would be essentially the same — “Zuckerberg weds longtime girlfriend” — but would be communicated in a way that seems more impersonal.

But is it really? Zuckerberg’s outreach was directed toward “persons” not people and presented in the form of digital data, read on a computer screen. There’s no hug. No eye contact. No physical or direct emotional conveyance of warmth.

Yet, reading the news on our smartphones, we feel like it’s directed toward us: a personal message from Mark — not because the news is personal but because it’s delivered on our very own screen, on an object to which we’ve developed a personal attachment.

The smartphone has evolved into more than a high-tech gadget. People love their phones. Literally. Recently, a successful and highly educated adult told me that she “couldn’t live” without her iPhone, which she then called “one of my best friends.” When people misplace these devices, they feel an intense panic that far outweighs the distress of losing a set of keys or even a wallet. They experience abandonment. How will they survive without their handheld computer?

Smartphones satisfy our basic needs for companionship through the newsfeeds and photos of social media. The smartphone delivers security — who hasn’t breathed a sigh of relieve that the GPS can lead us by the hand where we need to go? The tiny screen — or the larger one on a home computer — can satisfy sexual needs, through porn. It helps locate food when we’re hungry. It tells us when to wake up and lulls us to sleep at night with soothing music, a white noise app or a downloaded novel or movie.

Intense bonding to an object is not only necessary but an important phase of human development — if you’re a young child. Remember the “blankie” that Linus drags behind him or the stuffed animal you couldn’t live without? As any parent will tell you, pandemonium ensues if a child’s comfort object, as we therapists call it, is left at home in a car trip or forgotten on the seat of an airplane. And a child experiences loss and sadness. Comfort objects help ease the emotional sting of separation as a child grows independent from Mom.

So, there’s a template in the human for bonding with objects and taking comfort in them. Remember the “pet rock”? When the constant companion is a cell phone, one that can speak and guide us, there’s a human impulse to take comfort in it and even to grow to love it at the risk preferring it at times to actual relationships. It’s our high-tech blankie, and it speaks to the Linus in us all.