broken phone or
broken bone?

by Dr Chris Merritt & Dr Richard Wolman

Would you rather have a broken phone or a broken bone? 

According to Adam Alter, Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University, 46% of young adults in a survey said they’d rather have a broken bone than a broken phone. Clear cases of what he calls ‘Nomophobia’: fear of being without your mobile phone. (1)

Attachments to our technological devices are stronger than ever. This is particularly the case for smartphones, which people in the US use on average for three hours a day. (2)

But how did we reach the point where people can’t bear to be separated from them, even preferring a serious physical injury to their absence? To answer this, we need to look at an area of psychology called ‘attachment’.

What is attachment?

Long before the first ‘brick’ mobile phones appeared, back in the 1960s when Bill Gates was still learning to code, psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed a theory. He suggested that, like many animals, humans have a biological drive to seek security in relationships. (3)

When those relationships let us down, for example by a parent being absent, the attachment ‘system’ is activated. As children, we tend to develop one of a small number of identifiable styles of responding to separation. This is our attachment style.

Kids might be ‘secure’ in their attachments – they know that if their caregiver goes away, they’ll probably come back and everything will be alright. Others aren’t so sure, and tend to respond with anger, anxiety or confusion when separated. Some are dismissive or avoidant, and reject intimacy.

Bowlby believed that attachment style was a product of genetic and environmental influences, and his research indicated that once established, attachment style remained relatively constant through childhood. Further studies seemed to confirm this consistency into adulthood, and its impact on key relationships like romantic partners. (4-5)

Other experts, however, suggested that attachment was more malleable, and found compelling experimental evidence that attachment style can change through our lives in response to new environments and bonds, for example when children are adopted. (6-7)

Digital attachment

But none of these studies examined the effects of the technological environment on attachment, particularly in the smartphone and tablet era of the past decade. How do our attachment patterns play out in the digital world? And are they being changed by technology?

US psychoanalyst Linda Cundy has suggested that people replicate their attachment style online. Those who respond to separation with anxiety will check devices frequently, seeking reassurance through social media presence. By contrast, people with an avoidant attachment style might use the digital world to keep others at arm’s length. (8)

But digital attachment can go beyond this, with the devices themselves becoming the focus of attachment.   

Digital technologies have significant appeal as attachment figures: they are constantly available, ‘devoted’ to us, highly predictable and therefore dependable, learn our preferences, and rarely let us down. Even humans with the best intentions can’t manage all that. And with our friends, acquaintances and followers just a tap away, they offer the promise of never having to miss out on anything – a gateway to fulfilment.

No wonder that three quarters of women surveyed by psychologists at a university in the US said that smartphones were damaging their relationships. (9) Many suggested that their partner was more attached to their phone than to them. Comedian Shappi Khorsandi once joked that she knew a relationship was in trouble when she found herself trying to swipe her lover’s face like an iPhone.

The future of digital attachment

An increasing number of our interactions are with ‘humanised’ technology like digital assistants or chatbots. Many of us are now routinely using digital assistants like Siri, Alexa or Cortana. As Adrienne Lafrance observes, they are mostly female. She asks if that is the result of patriarchal programmers associating a ‘secretarial’ role with women, or merely an attempt to make gradual AI-based automation of tasks more socially acceptable? (10)

Artists have played with themes of what these relationships could mean for us. One idea that fascinates writers and directors is humans forming romantic attachments to machines. The film ‘Her’ has Joaquim Phoenix falling in love with his AI personal assistant Samantha, and the manipulative (again female) Ava character in ‘Ex Machina’ seduces the man selected to participate in the Turing Test with her. Will AI provide future humans with ‘perfect’ partners?

Sci-fi aside, could we be forming powerful attachment relationships to devices like smartphones and other ‘humanoid’ technologies, which cause us anxiety, anger and confusion if we are separated from them? There is evidence that more than just attachment mechanisms are at work.

Getting more attached

Many apps and platforms are created to be addictive, hooking us in and keeping us there. Designers use the term ‘time on device’ (11) – a phrase borrowed from the world of gambling, where addiction equals profit – to describe their aim.

Apps and interfaces are ‘gamified’ to make them rewarding to use. Social media sites blast us with dopamine hits through novel information that makes us constantly shift attention. (12) Video games such as World of Warcraft and shopping apps like Gilt are built to keep us online. (13)

User data tells analysts precisely which features are addictive, and which ones aren’t; under-performing elements are jettisoned in a process of evolution by digital selection. The product becomes more addictive over time. 

Product designers and marketers have long sought to create emotional bonds between consumer and item. With personified tech and addictive interfaces, their job has never been easier. 

A recent marketing research technique – Tech Break-Ups – asks participants to write a break-up letter to a piece of technology, to understand how emotions and identity are wrapped up in the use of that object. (14)

Put all that together and few would agree that this level of attachment to digital tech is a good thing. So, what can we do about it?

What year is it?

At a corporate or industrial level, firms can choose to employ design ethics to reduce potential harm from product addiction, for example through warning messages if a user exceeds a time threshold on their device. The growing field of digital humanism has a key role here in offering solutions to those with attachment issues.

At the individual level, we can make choices about how we use tech. We can reduce its hold over us by having defined ‘no phone time’, switching off notifications, and getting outside to meet people face to face.

Alter recommends going to a new environment where, if you look around, you can’t tell what year it is. A forest, a beach, a hill or perhaps a lake. Somewhere without instant, constant digital connection. Somewhere you can’t see any smartphones.

We can be mindful of how our personal attachment styles play out through technology, and whether the digital devices we use are a) adversely affecting the way we interact with others, and b) becoming our object of attachment. Using tech isn’t bad, it’s just about knowing when to take a break from it. 

For all their imperfections, a human attachment figure is still preferable to a digital surrogate. 

And for me at least, a broken phone is preferable to a broken bone.

2., ibid.
3. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. London: Hogarth Press.
4. George, C., Kaplan, N., & Main, M. (1985). Adult Attachment Interview. Unpublished manuscript, University of California, Berkeley.
5. Waters, E., Hamilton, C. E., & Weinfeld, N. S. (2000). The stability of attachment security from infancy to adolescence and early adulthood: General introduction. Child Development, 71, 678-683.
6. Grossmann, K. E. (1999). Old and new Internal Working Models of Attachment: The organisation of feelings and language. Attachment & Human Development, 1, 253-269.
7. Pace, C.S., Zavattini, G. C., & D’Alessio, M. (2012). Continuity and discontinuity of attachment patterns: A short-term longitudinal pilot study using a sample of late-adopted children and their adoptive mothers. Attachment & Human Development, 14, 45-61.
8. Cundy, L. (2014). Love in the Age of the Internet: Attachment in the Digital Era. London: Karnac.
9. McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, 85-98.
11. Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. London: Penguin.
12. Levitin, O. (2015). Why the modern world is bad for your brain. The Observer. January 18, 2015.
13. Alter (2017), ibid.
14. Gerber, E. (2011). Tech Break Up: A research met


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