In her work as a marriage and family therapist, Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill often finds her patients bring in some common baggage: their smartphones.
Parents, especially, are tethered to their iPhones and the like, unable to turn them off or silence them during a session for fear something might happen to their kids. They come in, sit down, and place the smartphone beside them like a sentinel, explaining that there are calls, texts or emails that they “must” be there for.
I contacted O’Neill after reading an intriguing – though not super-scientific poll – about “nomophobia” or fear of losing your smartphone. Conducted by mobile security service provider SecurEnvoy, the results claimed that 70 percent of women and 61 percent of men fear losing their phones.
While O’Neill, a licensed psychotherapist with 25 years of experience and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage, remains skeptical about whether nomophobia would ever make it into the DSM-IV, she says anxiety surrounding smartphones is real.
She talked to Cult of Mac about being connected in today’s world, how smartphones can spark anger in couples and why she’s resisting the iPhone.
Cult of Mac: What do you think about “nomophobia?” Is it a real problem?
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill: Whether or not this would be classified as an actual phobia, I’ve definitely noticed something going on over the last few years with smartphones. There are moms who come in at 10 a.m. and can’t sit there without having the smartphone beside their leg or in front of them — and some of them look at it or check it repeatedly.
From my perspective as a marriage and family therapist, I certainly see moms and dads who are so smartphone connected to their children that they could fear losing their phones. There would be concern that disconnection might leave their children unsafe or unattended in some way.
Cult of Mac: How do you deal with the smartphone intrusion?
SGO: Therapists try to set boundaries about these things. In my case, I will say, “If you feel the need to have your smartphone there, OK, but if it’s not an emergency, you might want to try turning it off…” But it’s getting harder to have people come in and agree to shut out the world completely. A lot of people, especially women, are very adept at saying, “I’ve got to take a call or answer a text or reply to this email.”
Cult of Mac: Is this “separation anxiety” around the smartphone just about parents and kids or does it extend to couples, too?
SGO: You see that visceral reaction to the smartphone more often around parents and kids. Typically, with couples it’s more about anger, as in, why won’t your partner agree to have the smartphone with them and be available for you?
Often now, we are flying by the seat of our pants and making arrangements about kids and errands at the last minute – so if your partner isn’t available, it is frustrating. When I first got my cellphone years ago, my husband was incensed that I didn’t want to have it with me at all times…Initially, there was a feeling that we didn’t really need cellphones, but times changed when more and more people got them. And, in general, our vigilance is heightened and we have a need to feel more in control.
Cult of Mac: Do you own a smartphone?
SGO: No. (laughing). I usually get my son’s old phones, but since his last two were iPhones, I am holding out. I know my current cellphone will eventually break and I’ll have to use one of them, but until then…I don’t even have a computer in my office, when I am with people, I want to focus on them completely. And the whole thing about being that available concerns me…There isn’t a lot of research on it yet, but my feeling is that this culture of constant connectivity will show some negative effects.