Why are cell phones so habit forming?

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As I exited the gym, the parking lot was bathed in filmy rain and there was only a hint of dawn. A woman crouched by a floppy bag, holding her head in her hands. I hesitated. She could be crazed. I had some unpleasant encounters with stray humans lately, but feeling virtuous from my workout, I approached the clearly distressed woman and ask her if she needed help.

“No,” she said. “Thanks, though. I lost my phone.” She looked past me, equal parts embarrassed and wounded. She stood and inched away; she might be afraid that I was a stray human, I realized.

“I’ve been there,” I said, trying to sound reassuring that I–not an unhinged person–had felt this phone schmertz.

We smiled uneasily at each other, and I bade her a better day.


Not 24 hours earlier, I was in that strange deprived twilight-no-phone zone. I’d actually tried to call someone to complain about my phone problems. More than once.

My phone is my flashlight and my boredom buffer, it counts my footsteps and verifies my identity for other machines. It holds my library, my music, and it reveals my patterns as an impulse shopper with mediocre follow-through. My camera roll is full of poorly done pet pictures and photos of bottles of wine I liked. I have a couple of shots of my youngest daughter that she didn’t immediately erase and I suspect there’s a photo I took of my own neck, trying to diagnose a rash. Not the most embarrassing device, but it’s not a thing I’m proud of.

We had a bit of a time-out, my phone and I. There was no reason for it, the phone just stopped functioning, and all the kings geniuses could do nothing without a warranty. Just as abruptly, it winked back to life a day later.

Why had I pushed that button one more time? I had researched, restarted, re-updated and finally resigned myself to the idea that I’d have to wait for a replacement. Something had provided the impulse to fish the dead phone out and press the “on” button, even though I knew the gesture was futile–except it worked.

My phone has trained me to pick it up and check it, to baby it and make sure I don’t leave it in the back seat. I get a little squee of pleasure when there’s a message, even a bad message. Some part of me just wants the phone to be included in things. For a month or so, I meditated with a doohickey on my phone. “Notice your breath,” it cooed.

Because of the pleasure it sometimes provides, my brain responds to the phone like the dogs with the dinner bell. I am conditioned to keep it close and mistake all those jumbled feelings for needing it.

While it was dead, I reflected on my discomfort, just like the squatting woman. It’s silly to care about a gizmo this way. I could read all my books on paper and listen to the radio and carry a flashlight in my purse again, like the old days.

I probably won’t do any of that, but it’s a good reminder to stop and think about your habits with your critical thinking hat on. Why did I even carry my dead phone with me? Habit. Why did I try to turn it on for the 85th time? Habit.

We are what we repeatedly do,” so, maybe don’t take too many neck selfies.



Further, further reading:


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