Our well-being centers on the meaningfulness of our relationships: our intimate ties, our associations with a larger circle of people, and our sense of interconnectivity with a collective tribe. Technology has become deeply embedded in how we build these relationships and define ourselves. It is undeniable that we can use technology in ways that are alienating—texting while talking, for example. But as a clinical psychologist creating and studying technology, I have been impressed by how people draw on their devices to enhance their relationships—in particular their capacities for being alone, interconnected, and attuned.
Aloneness is central both to individual identity and close relationships. We move between aloneness and togetherness, throughout life and in the context of any particular relationship. Aloneness is often generative, allowing us to immerse in creative work or recharge before engaging with others. Recent demographic and lifestyle shifts foreground aloneness even more. More of us live alone today, and the decline of traditional marriage has helped individuals define themselves less by one particular relationship.
Amidst this relational fluidity, people attach to technologies as transitional objects—items that represent nurturing relationships and thereby provide psychological comfort. Technologies provide an emotional security that emboldens people to venture out independently, either alone or toward others. For many, the phone encapsulates both social belongingness and social aspiration. My devices, particularly my laptop, provide a sense of connectedness that allows me to feel calm when alone and collected when with others (i.e., reminded of a range of friendships when I am in a potentially overwhelming interaction) Technologies are also becoming more explicit transitional objects. Observing small children negotiating for play time with their parents’ highly valued phones, for example, shows how the phone has partly taken over the role of the baby blanket as a transitional object mediating between the self and the world.