What if it’s More Than Addiction: Are Youth Emotionally Attached to Their Smartphones?


Post by Natasha Parent, Graduate student in the Human Development, Learning, and Culture Program at the University of British Columbia. Author of: “Moving beyond addiction: An attachment theory framework for understanding young adults’ relationships with their smartphones

Although this blog and website is primarily focused on the issue of cyberbullying, there are other topics relevant to kids and technology, such as problematic smartphone use and addiction, that are having a negative impact on youth’s mental health.

Why problematic smartphone use/addiction?

The widespread use of smartphones in modern culture has given rise to many concerns among parents and researchers alike. Specifically, overuse of these devices by young people has been associated with several problematic behaviours, including the compulsive use of smartphones in inappropriate situations, such as when one should be sleeping, while driving, or while in class. To date, researchers have conceptualized these problematic behaviours as a new form of behavioural addiction, such as gambling or overeating, where instead of being addicted to a substance the individual is addicted to the behaviour, or the feeling experienced by acting out the behaviour.

What if it’s not just an addiction?

Several researchers have voiced concerns over applying this medical-addiction model to such a novel, common, and potentially functional dependence on smartphones. In other words, they are concerned that using this medical-addiction model, in which excessive smartphone use is compared to a substance use disorder, is an oversimplification of the psychological motivators driving these behaviours.

An attachment theory framework for understanding problematic smartphone use/addiction

Recent work has applied the use of an attachment theory framework, rather than that of addiction, for understanding youth’s relationships with their smartphones.

Attachment theory is a well-established biologically adaptive framework used to describe human relationship bonds. Though it was originally conceptualized to help understand relational bonds between two people, it has also proven useful for understanding human relationships with objects, such as smartphones.

Youth’s relationships with their smartphones can be conceptualized using the four key characteristics of attachment bonds:

  1. Proximity Maintenance: constant connection to their smartphones.
  2. Safe Haven:use of their smartphones to feel relaxed, escape problems, lift mood.
  3. Secure Base:increased feelings of confidence and security in the presence of their smartphones.
  4. Separation Anxiety:feeling of anxiety upon being separated from their smartphones.


Understanding that youth may be using their smartphones as a source of security, confidence, and anxiety reduction (to satisfy their attachment needs), here are a few things to keep in mind when dealing with your children’s smartphone use:

  • Avoid judging, blaming, or shaming youth for their smartphone use.
  • Find other ways to bolster youth’s feelings of safety/anxiety reduction (e.g., encouraging screen-free family time; being accountable/reliable – be a consistent source of support and trust for your children).
  • Provide an alternative to smartphone use: suggest that you watch television or play online games
  • Model the behaviour you would like to see in your children.

Takeaway: Navigating youth’s technology use is a difficult process (for both of you!) so be transparent and negotiate boundaries together.

Check out the rest of this website for other suggestions https://cyberbullying.primus.ca/how-kids-use-tech/the-changing-nature-of-your-teens-online-relationships/