If you shy away from relationships, there's a chance you're also addicted to your phone, say these scientists

Are you dating your phone?

Are you dating your phone?

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Should you be searching for some insight into your romantic success rate (or lack thereof), you may want to turn your attention to your smartphone. By which I mean, look down, because it's probably already at arm's length in any case. According to recent science, there appears to be a correlation between how much you coddle your phone and how little you cuddle people.   

Research out of Kyungil University in South Korea suggests that folks who fall into the category of "avoidant attachment" in their relationships could be at a higher risk for smartphone addiction. For the layperson, "avoidant attachment" is psychology speak for a more recognizable handle: commitment-phobe (aka the distant dater). The correlation, say researchers, was an indirect but significant one. Ultimately, those who rated higher in markers for avoidant traits also displayed tendencies toward lower self-esteem and anxiety — two things that are strongly associated with smartphone addiction. "In other words," explains study co-author, Eunyoung Koh, "attachment avoidance can lead to the addictive use of smartphones through low self-esteem and/or anxiety."  

Koh confirms that "as the use of smartphones has surged, concerns about smartphone overuse and addiction have been increasing." Koh, being particularly concerned with psychological attachment styles as they related to smartphone addiction, applied more scrutinous scientific attention to "avoidant attachment, which had relatively low interest to anxious attachment."  

"People often focus on the problematic behavior in the use of smartphones and there has been less attention about the mechanism of smartphone addiction," Koh explains. Put another way, Koh's team wanted to suss out the psychology driving our phone dependence beyond the panacea of infinite pics to like, tweets to read, memes to peep, news updates to scroll through, and suitors who are only a swipe away — and from whom you'll almost certainly remain distant. Your phone also doubles (quadruples?) as clock, work computer for emails and interactive map. You could argue that addiction may not be the right word for something so useful, and some researchers have.   

PhD student David Markowitz, who's conducted studies on our psychological states when in proximity to our phones has a more positive take on our need for the feed. His position may offer something of an apologia for phubbing, the rudest of all phone behaviours. The smartphone, for Markowitz, "fundamentally symbolizes the potential to be social." So long as we aren't using it in the stead of connecting IRL — which is exactly what Koh and his team seem to be implying with their transitive avoidant behaviour equals low self-esteem equals phone addiction equation.

Clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Firestone, who was not involved in the study, defines avoidant people by their "tendency to be distant, because their model is that the way to get your needs met is to act like you don't have any."  When they finally choose "a partner who fits with that maladaptive pattern, he or she will most likely be choosing someone who isn't the ideal choice to make him or her happy." Ugh. By the by, emotional attachment styles are also associated with inanimate objects — which are sometimes referred to as comfort objects or transitional objects. Think toddler's teddy bear or blankie serving as surrogate for mom. Or a phone serving as surrogate for a person. Or a surrogate phone serving to replace your actual phone so that you aren't beholden to a persistently beeping, buzzing, pacifying device. A pacifier for your pacifier as it were: the rabbit hole of attachment goes deep.

In fairness, the study, conducted on a small sample size (376 Korean university students), has some clear limitations and researchers admit as much. Koh asserts that "further research is needed to confirm the consistency of conclusions by diversifying the region, culture, race, etc." Nonetheless, the salient takeaway from the study for Koh "is that psychological factors such as self-esteem, anxiety, and attachment avoidance should be managed to fight smartphone addiction."    

Significantly, Koh also brings up the most singular aspect of our current reality: millenials and every child born after them are fated to become true technology natives, smartphones being a veritable extension of their person. Consider that some of us born before millennials also meet the criteria (*checks notifications*).  

"The average age for children getting their first smartphone is getting younger," says Koh, "it is necessary to investigate whether this mechanism is confirmed at a younger age." The teddies and blankies of the future may very well be destined to become "smartphonies". Presuming we aren't all just married to cyborgs with smartphones for faces and there are still babies left to pacify. In which case we can always just program our spouses to do it for us.


Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news. Follow him on Twitter @TheMarcBeaulieu for fun facts and oddities.