There it is, in your pocket itching away. Did you feel it buzz? Did you check it anyway, even if you didn’t feel it buzz? Just in case there was a notification you missed? Or perhaps there’s an email waiting there for you. You didn’t want to read it, but you had to check anyway.
The numbers vary according to different methods of research, but let’s assume that on average that people are checking their phones 46 times a day (Deloitte) and carrying out an average of 221 tasks on their phone a day (Tecmark). The Tecmark study notes that checking our phones is often the first thing we do in the morning, and the last thing we do at night. How many times in between are you checking? My guess is that the number varies wildly between age groups, and again between individuals.
Some research is has shown that heavy smartphone users will experience higher anxiety their phones were removed for up to an hour, while light users noticed no difference, and moderate users experienced an increase in anxiety and then a levelling off. There’s some indication here that moderate to heavy use causes a kind of dependency, but probably not an addiction, at least for most people.
While it’s well understood that the novelty of receiving notifications rings bells in the reward centres of the brain, this is often attributed to what is called the “variable interval reinforcement schedule” which is the same thing that links addiction to e-mail and addiction to gambling. In short, sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t – but when you do, it feels really good to your brain, so much so that it’s as if you check because it makes you a little bit high.
Technology as Object of Emotional Supply
It’s more complicated than this. Not only do we get rewarded (or not) by constantly checking for novelty, but the very nature of what we are checking for is crucial. As I detailed closely in my book the attraction of social media is that it’s essentially relational. Online social networks are built for social purposes and our participation across them is motivated by our desire to connect with others. Primarily, it is a way to give and receive recognition and validation.
Our mobile phones have also developed as a tool for connection long surpassing it’s original purpose as a high spec walkie talkie. It represents our connection to the world by way of email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and a whole variety of different apps that facilitate connection. When I was writing my book in 2013 people studies showed that people checked Facebook via a smartphone on average 14 times a day. I’d be curious to know how that’s increased today, especially when you add in the variety of social networks we inhabit. I expect it’s steadily increasing.
Our technologies have become an object of emotional supply and the ways in which our relationships are linked might be called emotional supply chains.
For the early psychoanalysts, the relationship between how we get satisfied emotionally was directly related to our oral phase of development. Otto Fenichel, a psychoanalyst from Freud’s time was interested in the sources of narcissism, and he said this:
The first supply of gratification form the external world [the mother’s breast], the supply of nourishment, is simultaneously the first regulator of self regard . . . Thus, all love received from a more powerful being fulfils the same function as the supply of milk does in infancy. The primitive means of gratification of narcissistic neediness is the feeling of being loved. [Those who lacked enough of this feeling] need ‘external narcissistic supplies” to maintain their self–regard . – Otto Fenichel
In short, this means that if we didn’t get what we needed as children, we look for it from others later in life – it’s as if we can’t reproduce it ourselves. Fortunately, this is an issue that can resolve itself through good trusting relationships later in life, or indeed, good psychotherapy. However, the question arises, are we all, as a culture, moving towards a system of needing external narcissistic supplies?
A culture of outsourcing our self-regard via emotional supply chains fed by objects of emotional supply
In short, you might say that the smartphone is new breast. I know, it sounds outlandish, doesn’t it. But think of it this way – think of your phone as a security blanket or a teddy bear.
Psychoanalysts understand these things as “transitional objects” that is something that sees the infant away from reliance on the breast or the mother, to developing a capacity to be alone. If all’s going relatively well, the infant trusts that the mother will come back again after she goes away. However, in the medium term, a blankie or a stuffed animal will keep that infant company in the interim. At some point, the transitional object is given up because that trust, in a sense, becomes an idea in the child’s head.
Today, it seems that we’re so used to outsourcing our sense of emotional supply to others, that we have re-invented the transitional object – only rather than a furry blanket or a teddy bear, it’s a smartphone.
So next time you absentmindedly reach into your pocket for your smartphone – pause for a second and think. What am I actually searching for? You may find that at bottom there’s a niggling sense of insecurity – and you just want to check to make sure someone else on the planet is thinking of you. So what do you do?
You turn to your object of emotional supply.
More on the psychodynamics of online life in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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 “Emotional Supply Chains” is the current exhibition at The Zabludowicz Collection featuring “post internet art” and is running until July 17 (2016) in London. It is free to the public. It was while researching a psychoanalytic tour I gave there in April that I was inspired by these ideas of emotional supplies, and owe that inspiration to The Zabludowicz
 Or, you could argue, commercial purposes dressed up as social purposes.
Images: Smartphone Teen: Pabak Sarkar; Brain Image: By P. Read Montague; Network: Darwin Peacock