Smartphones as Adult Pacifiers

by Daria J. Kuss, PhD

I have been researching technology use for over ten years now, including online games, social media and smartphone use. Based on my research, I’ve also developed the only applied Master’s programme in Cyberpsychology in the country, supporting the British Psychological Society’s development of a new Cyberpsychology section. This indicates the discipline’s growing reach and appeal, which is unsurprising given technology use on a global scale!

In the context of my research, I regularly deliver talks at conferences. I often ask my audience how they would feel if they had forgotten their phone at home or in their hotel room in the morning. I tend to get surprising answers! I have been told that people would rather forget their keys than their phone. Once I was even informed that they would rather forget their shoes than their phone. Although somewhat extreme, these comments leave me wondering what kind of a place technology has got in our everyday lives. People’s responses to my question are a sign of what has been termed “nomophobia” in the literature, or “no mobile phone phobia” – the fear of being without your phone. Nomophobia is often a consequence of a fear of missing out, the so-called “FoMO,” driven by social pressures to communicate, update your status on your social media profiles, like others’ posts and comments, you name it. It has been estimated that we spend an average of five years of our lives on social media. At the end of our life, are we going to be content with having spent a considerable proportion of our time scrolling through our social media feeds?

Smartphones have become adult pacifiers (see Kuss, 2017, where I have written about how smartphone have become an extension of our selves). We live our lives through our smartphones. Smartphones are how we get up in the morning, how we watch the news, listen to music, play games, write emails, do our shopping, pay our bills, remind ourselves of appointments and birthdays, find romantic partners, and, oh yes, communicate with the outside world. Our phones have become an extension of ourselves, like an extra limb or an additional sense. No wonder, then, that we become easily engrossed in them, sometimes to the detriment of our personal relationships. In fact, the newly emerged phenomenon “phubbing” denotes a new-age problem associated with phone use, namely that of snubbing another person by using your phone. Lots of friendships and romantic relationships are impacted by individuals using their phones whilst together with their friends and other half, and not in a good way.

The extent of phone use may in some instances become problematic, particularly when control over phone use is lost and individuals replace possible alternative pastime activities with smartphone use. My research at Nottingham Trent University suggests that for a small minority of excessive smartphone users, depression and addiction symptoms may be the consequence of their engagement with technology. Individuals who experience addiction-related problems typically report preoccupation with smartphone use, increasing smartphone use over time, a lack of control over their use, limited or nonuse leading to psychological and physical symptoms, such as irritability and difficulty sleeping, and significant impairments in important areas of their lives. When smartphone use is limited or discontinued, individuals with addiction-related problems furthermore report reinstatement of the behaviour, often irrespective of the manifold negative consequences of use they may experience.

With smartphones having gained an important role in our everyday lives, I wonder what can be done to ensure users stay healthy. The technology is with us to stay, so abstinence may not be a realistic answer. Instead, I advocate beneficial use with individuals having an increased awareness of the possible drawbacks of technology use. I have outlined treatment approaches in my new book Internet Addiction.

For our everyday use, I have three tips based on my research on the topic:

  1. Make time for technology use in the morning and in the evening – get it out of your system and then get on with the rest of your day!
  2. Have tech-free times, for example dinner time, and tech-free spaces, such as the bedroom.
  3. Put the phone away when it’s not used! The next room will do, and so will your bag. Out of sight, out of mind!


For more, please contact me at daria.kuss@ntu.ac.uk and follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Kuss

References

Kuss, D. (2017). Mobile technology and social media: The “Extensions of Man” in the 21st century. Human Development, 60, 141–143. doi.org/10.1159/000479842

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