My girlfriend seems to view her smartphone as an extension of herself. Every time there's a lull in the conversation, she whips it out and starts browsing, Tweeting, or Facebooking. Aside from some general annoyance, I'm okay with this. I'm pretty attached to my phone as well, though less so than she is. Recently, though, on a weekend trip, she left her phone on the airplane, and, long story short, she didn't get it back. She was so distressed. She cried and was mopey the whole weekend. She's still kind of sad about it, a few weeks and a new phone later. Is this a sign of addiction? Should I worry about this kind of behavior over something so trivial as a phone?
We like to throw the word "addiction" around a lot. Some might say we're addicted to calling things addictions, but some people would also be hypocrites. It does seem like every week there's a new study bemoaning the dangers of video games, online gambling, or how much of our lives are spent begrudgingly adapting to the Facebook changes du jour. But last week in the New York Times, Michael Lindstrom claimed that these weighty feelings we give to our devices might be more akin to love than to addiction. In an fMRI experiment, Lindstrom tested subjects on whether responses to their phones signified brain-based signs of addiction, like gambling, drugs, or shopping. Instead, he found something else:
"[M]ost striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects' brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend, or family member."
As someone who once, without hesitation, reached into a bar toilet when my phone fell out of my pocket and into the grimy pit of despair (it wasn't even a smartphone), I can totally empathize with Lindstrom's analysis of phone courtship.
On a different front, David J. Linden, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good talks about the pleasure our brains derive from our phones, which might explain why so many people are attached at the hip. Linden notes at Big Think that our brains love receiving information, even if it's useless, which might explain why 10 million people follow Kim Kardashian's tweets about pumpkin scented candles. When we feel our phones buzz or beep, we get a dopamine boost from the anticipation of what new information we are about to receive. But! This pleasure to anticipation can be curbed by abstaining from something we enjoy, because apparently our brains are also masochists.
It sounds like your girlfriend definitely feels a sense of attachment to her gadget, but I wouldn't place it in the realm of addiction, assuming she's still a functioning adult, and is still, like, getting to work on time and remembering to buy toilet paper and such. I would suggest she take some preliminary precautions to curb her dependence on it, which I've outlined in the past, and to schedule phone-free intervals, so that if/when she finds herself without her com-phone-ian, it won't ruin an otherwise pleasant weekend.
Social-media mistress Anna Pulley likes to give advice about how to play well with others on the internets. If you have a question about etiquette involving technology, shoot her a question at AskAnnaSF@gmail.com.