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Our Love-Hate Relationship with our Cell Phones

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By Diane Medved

Have you been “phubbed”? (It’s a verb, as in “to phub.”) If so, you’re a “phubee.”


Psychologists define phubbing as “the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by concentration on one’s mobile phone.” A 2018 study from the University of Kent in Britain found that, unsurprisingly, relationships of subjects imagining they were phubbed suffered. They felt excluded and more depressed.


A 2016 study shows that being phubbed also thwarts our need for belonging and social connection, largely by ruining communication.


What this suggests is that our cell phones provide a myriad of uses, including as rude social signals. Got me thinking about how I’ve become one of those (74% of Americans, according to a study by Reviews.org) who feels naked without my cell phone—so I decided to assess the positives and negatives of these devices we now find so indispensable.


We hear so much about the negative consequences of cell phones that we intuitively assume we ought to limit our use—or at least that of our kids. “Screentime” has always been synonymous with “wasted time;” even before cell phones existed, the average time spent mindlessly watching TV was 4 hours daily. Various studies currently claim from 3-6 hours. The website Statista says the pandemic increased average cell phone use, to about 5 hours in 2021, and several other media measurement sites agree.


Despite spending so much time on them, we resent feeling compelled to respond. Reviews.org reports that 71% of us check our phones within 10 minutes of waking up. Seventy percent respond to a notification within five minutes. And on average, Americans check their phones 344 times per day. (Sixty-four percent admit to pecking their keyboard on the toilet.) We’re losing control of our days to the demands of our devices; the constantly changing updates fuel a fear of missing out, lest we skip a friend’s Instagram post, or an influencer’s TikTok tidbit.


So much is concentrated in the ether, and available on our phones, that Reviews.org notes that 47% in their survey described themselves as addicted. A 2016 review of academic research on the subject found that cell phone addiction may bring sleep disturbance, anxiety, stress, and to a lesser extent, depression. Addicted phoners see relationships of all kinds suffer, which propels them further into substitutes on their phones. And it’s easy to get hooked, given unlimited cell plans, cheap phones, and lack of social censure.


We’ve all read how destructive social media can be for teen girls, whose self-esteem gets battered when compared with others’ perfect images online. A 2019 longitudinal study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that adolescents who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media (and 97% of teens report using at least one of the most popular social media platforms) “may be at heightened risk for mental health problems…” such as feeling depressed or anxious. Another 2019 study, in The Lancet, analyzed longitudinal data on teens in England and correlated increased time on social media with greater psychological problems, less life satisfaction and more anxiety.


These findings brought an explosion of programs to educate teens, and a proliferation of apps to control kids’ phone use. Or to spy on them. In any case, while children are now warned in schools regarding their free-time site surfing, they’re also required to gain “computer literacy,” ie “app literacy,” as well, to prepare for future education and career. Children at private schools receive laptop computers for homework; during the pandemic, laptops became essential for lessons. And so adults offer mixed messages about whether devices are crucial or crushing.


And that’s the rub. Cell phones are both.


There are downsides besides addiction. Crinking chin to clavicle viewing our phones moves our focus away from the reality around us and makes us less motivated to get up and find what’s beyond our fingertips. When answering a “ding” becomes highest priority, even when we’re with family, we send a message about what, and whom we value. We become distracted from important activities—such as driving—and gain a distorted sense of immediacy about lures that are not necessarily immediate.


The availability of the internet in our palms can bring us encyclopedic knowledge, or drag us toward our most perverse inclinations. Porn is simple to access. Sexting has gained an allure for some—and affected the careers of others (Jeff Bezos, Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner). Cell phones provide easy means to find mates—but also sex partners with whom to cheat on mates. Even USA Today realizes that cell phones can be revealing, as in their 2020 article, “Spouse Cheating? 10 Tech Clues to Find Evidence.”


And while it’s reassuring that family members can call when you’re needed, the flipside is that you become available at all hours as well. This can cause employees to feel they’re never finished with work, and bring pressure to put in as many hours as their colleagues. There’s no downtime if your phone’s on, and even when the little moon indicates “do not disturb,” messages can come in.


Finally, the environment suffers from all the tech trash. Keeping a phone beyond three or four years is rare, especially when the battery needs more frequent recharging. Some phones get refurbished, and others get shipped to other lands to be reused, but lots of them clutter our drawers, and eventually make their way into our trashcans and landfills. So many spent batteries can’t be good for Mother Earth.


We’re so fond of our precious smartphones that 45% say their phones are their most valuable possessions. Why? Because of the many upsides. They’re our access to everything else we value—like our photos (taken on our cellphones), our documents (remember showing vaccination cards on our phones?), our communication, including emails, texts and phone messages. The days of our lives are marked in our calendars; our podcasts educate us, and playlists and download subscriptions entertain us. One device contains our worlds.


Our phones replace a plethora of formerly necessary accoutrements. Like still and video cameras, rendered superfluous by the excellent lens quality of newer cellphones, and the cloud storage that guarantees we can find our photos with a click.


Our phones replace calculators, alarm clocks and wristwatches. Goodbye Rolodex (remember that?)! How about those big fat planners, onto which we’d stick post-it notes? All in our phones now, including our shopping lists, which transfer immediately when we say “Hey Google,” or “Alexa!”


And phones also work as, well, telephones. Calls across the country and around the world that were formerly prohibitively expensive are now free. We can phone with one click, thanks to our “favorites” directory. We don’t need phone books (saving lots of trees) since we just consult websites on the Internet to find retailers. We often don’t even have to phone them; their sites tell us the hours and menu before heading to the restaurant—to pick up orders made on our phones.


Another click takes us to maps, with detailed directions to turn not at this light, but the one after. Say ‘bye to your Thomas Guide, and the stand-alone GPS we used to clip to our dashboards. And speaking of cars, we’re often speaking in cars, since they’re programmed to let you safely give commands and make calls while driving.


The array of phone apps is staggering, and most offer a rudimentary version for free. You can identify songs, plants and dogs through apps that access your phone camera. You can hear or see nearly anything—including how to replace a broken pipe and how to get rid of a double chin—through YouTube videos. You can read QR codes and edit antique photos. I still have my app that describes weird behaviors of crows.


Last Thanksgiving, our family was enacting our ritual of describing one less-obvious thing for which we’re each grateful. My daughter started waxing eloquent about her cell phone, and the rest of us chimed in our appreciation for the seemingly unlimited things it can do. We know our attention to a physical device in pocket or hand detracts from real relationships, but we also know all the essential ways it makes our lives easier—and actually enhances relationships as well. We can now FaceTime our grandkids, and text people we don’t want to bother with a phone ringing. Our communication with others is so much easier, and even emojis, with their happy faces and dancing figures let us widen and enhance our expression.


So while we need be aware and vigilant against their negatives, we should also realize the extent our phones simplify our lives. It’s a love-hate relationship, all right, but from my perspective, ultimately our dependence on so many of its resources tips the balance toward that little red emoji heart.


Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. She and her husband, author and radio talk host Michael Medved (770 AM, noon to 3) raised their three children near Seattle and can be seen walking with grabber and bag retrieving litter with them and some of their five grandchildren. Her current project is The Case for Children. Reach her at DianeMedved.com.

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