Fifteen-year-old Caitlin is explaining to me why she’s worried about her upcoming holiday to Turkey. On the surface, it sounds like a fantastic trip. She’s going with her mum and dad, brother Stuart (age 11), plus her Dad’s sister’s family, who live in Greece.

Caitlin usually gets on well with her folks and she’s especially looking forward to hanging out with her older cousins. They’ve rented a villa with its own pool and a barbecue on the deck. There is just one snag – and it’s a biggie. The adults have decided that this will be a device-free holiday, for everybody. Ten days without their mobiles and iPads – the longest Caitlin can remember being offline.

From Caitlin’s parents’ perspective, I can absolutely understand the attraction of a family holiday uninterrupted by the insistent pinging and ringing of digital devices. They’re tired of nagging Stuart to stop playing online games long enough to eat his dinner (Fortnite is their current battleground1), and they’d love to have a decent conversation with Caitlin without being phubbed (a glorious mash-up of ‘phone’ and ‘snub’, which means being ignored while someone checks their phone). But from Caitlin’s point of view, the thought of being separated from their devices feels like torture.

First of all, she’s anticipating that Stuart will be a nightmare to be around if he can’t use his iPad. Stuart’s only interests seem to be playing games, and making videos of himself playing games to post to his YouTube channel. Nobody watches these and this makes Stuart sad, but he loves making them anyway, and complains of boredom if  he can’t get online. Secondly, Caitlin’s record-breaking Snapstreak with Rachel is going to be broken. So far, they’ve been exchanging photos and videos on Snapchat for 315 days straight – their best streak yet, and the longest that either  of them have managed to maintain a digital connection with another friend. It’s not just the ‘facts’ of the streak that are important, it’s what they symbolise. Caitlin struggled to  find reliable friends for the first few years of high school; becoming BFFs (‘Best Friends Forever’) with Rachel represents a personal victory of sorts, after several years of feeling sidelined and lonely while she watched her loose network of acquaintances interact with each other online much more frequently than they contacted her.

Which brings us to the third reason that Caitlin is so concerned about her idyllic 10-day holiday: what might she miss while she’s out of contact with her friends, and what happens if Rachel decides she likes someone else better? When she does get back online, she’ll have to wade through hundreds – possibly thousands – of digital messages and photos showing her friends having a whale of a time without her. Caitlin’s FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is so great that she’s seriously considering feigning illness so that she can stay with her grandparents while the rest of her family is on holiday, just to stay connected to friends via her phone.

Digitally mediated relationships are fraught with the anxieties of asynchronous communication (the kind of jerky, stop-start communication that happens in ‘bits’, rather than one utterance running smoothly into the next in real time) and perpetually open loops. In face-to-face contact, or even on the phone, we can be reasonably sure that we’ll get a timely response to what we’ve said, and it’s usually pretty clear when the conversation has come to an end. By text or email and in the endless scroll of messages sent via social media apps, we have to wait for a response for an indeterminate amount of time, and we can never quite be sure when one ‘episode’ of communication has ended and another has begun. Both of these features can keep us in an expectant, agitated state, constantly reaching for our devices to see whether so-and-so has got back to us about such- and-such, even when we know that such-and-such isn’t very important or interesting, and we don’t actually care very much for so-and-so. As in any other arena of our lives, it’s hard to relax when we don’t know what’s coming next – or when it will happen.

The chicken and the digital egg

Caitlin’s level of anxiety about going technology free could be described as nomophobia (short for ‘no mobile phone phobia’2). Apparently, around two-thirds of mobile phone users say they feel distressed when separated from their phones (or unable to use them, for example because the battery has run out), and this figure is even higher in younger people.3 But are our phones making us (more) anxious, or were we anxious in the first place? I’m curious about the interplay between digital technologies and our attachment styles and behaviours, and it turns out that I’m not alone.

Linda Cundy draws on Michael Balint’s distinction between ‘ocnophils’ (people who manage stress by seeking contact with their attachment figures) and ‘philobats’ (folk who manage relational stress by seeking space away from attachment figures), and speculates that these two kinds of strategy will show up in different patterns of interaction with communication technologies.4 Indeed, people with an avoidant attachment style are reported to prefer email over phone communication, because it affords less intimacy and more psychological distance.3 In the same paper, a questionnaire study found that while proximity to their phone was equally important for most of the participants, constant connection with other people through their phone was more important for those with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. The digital umbilicus of the phone line is much longer and more flexible than other, traditional ways of keeping in touch, and phones as transitional objects not only symbolise relationships but also allow us to call on assistance from others when we get worried. What are the implications for things like adolescent separation and autonomy?

The possibility of constant connection is a Pandora’s Box, whose implications we are only just beginning to understand, and it is generating some interesting approaches to trying to mitigate effects on our friendships and family relationships. A popular restaurant chain recently offered free kids’ meals to families who opted to leave their devices in a locked ‘no phone zone’ box at their table for the duration of their meal.5 In a similar vein, the ‘Phone Stack’ game can be played anywhere, and invites diners to leave their phones face down in a pile in the middle of the table while they eat. The first person to crack and reach for their phone has to pay for everyone else’s food. I’m not sure I’ll be demanding that my young clients play the Phone Stack game with me any time soon in the therapy room, but for sure I’ll continue talking with them about the effects of technology on their day-today experiences and relationships. 

Sarah Haywood works as a school-based clinician and trainer for Place2Be. She is also a lecturer in Art Psychotherapy at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

References

1 Stuart K. Fortnite: a parents’ guide to the most popular video game in schools. The Guardian 2018; 7 March. www.theguardian.com/games/2018/ mar/07/fortnite-battle-royale-parentsguide-video-game-multiplayer-shooter
2 Valdesolo P. [Online.] www. scientificamerican.com/article/ scientists-study-nomophobia-mdashfear-of-being-without-a-mobile-phone/
3 Konok V, Gigler D, Bereczky BM, Miklósi A. Humans’ attachment to their mobile phones and its relationship with interpersonal attachment style. Computers in Human Behaviour 2016; 61: 537–547.
4 Cundy L. Love in the age of the internet: attachment in the digital era. Abingdon: Routledge; 2018.
5 Petter O. [Online.] www.independent. co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/ frankie-bennys-mobile-phone-banrestaurant-smartphone-social-mediadiners-a8655556.html