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Noodle this one: The cell phone is the adult pacifier

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There’s nothing quite as assuming as inviting yourself over for dinner.

I found myself doing that this weekend, as Carol was away for a conference.

"So," I asked of my son, Ted, “what have you got planned?” When he said he was going to be home on Saturday, I didn’t beat around the bush.

“How about dinner?”

“Erica has got a good movie. We can do that, too,” he said, extending the invite. What better, dinner and a movie with Ted and Erica and my twin granddaughters, Sydney and Alex.

Then there was the matter of choices that came on the follow-up call Saturday afternoon.

“We’re doing Chinese,” Ted said. “What shall I order for you?”

“I’m fine with whatever you get, pick what you like,” I answered.

That’s not what Ted wanted to hear. He likes being specific. I insisted I wasn’t fussy, but that wasn’t good enough. He started reading items off the takeout menu.

Finally, I said, “Shanghai noodles.”

Ted had never had Shanghai noodles. He wasn’t sure he’d like them.

“They’re hot,” I said, knowing that Ted likes spicy food. It did the trick.

But there’s far more to this story than a Chinese menu. It has to do with companions and how cell phones and tablets are so much a part of our lives. What I learned on arriving at my son’s home is that Cox had visited earlier in the day to replace the modem and now the router was down and, other than a direct wire connection – Erica’s laptop was it – they were without wi-fi. The twins couldn’t use their iPads. They had lost contact with the outside world.

Erica thought the router and replacement of the modem were connected. Ted believed it was coincidence, but before tackling the problem he was ready for Chinese.

“You’ll do it before the movie,” Erica said as more of a statement that an inquiry. Ted promised he would, and Erica and the girls looked relieved.

The sequence of events that followed took on more meaning after reading an online story from the International Business Times on how connected we’ve become to our cell phones. The story was on the launch of Apple’s iPhone 8 and iPhone X and how the company aims to build “Town Squares” that would double as public spaces, complete with outdoor plazas, indoor forums and boardrooms around their stores.

The author asks, as I have wondered, what makes people so attached to their phones that they must have them at all times and can’t refrain from seemingly perpetually holding or looking at them? I was at URI last week and realized that practically everyone I saw was looking at their phone – maybe texting – as they crossed campus. Only a few were talking on their phones and fewer still were taking in the beautiful fall weather.

There’s apparently more to this affixation than wanting to keep up with friends, according to Jaco J. Hamman. Hamman talks about how our sense of self is shaped while we are still in the womb.

“The development of the self, however, accelerates after birth. A newborn, first and foremost, attaches herself to the primary caregiver and later to things – acquiring what has been called an ‘extended self,’” he writes. He cites how a pacifier or a stuffed toy can become part of the extended self for young children and then belongings from money to prized objects can become extended selves for adults.

“Phones, I argue, play a similar role. It is not uncommon for me to feel a sudden onset of anxiety should I drop my phone or am unable to find it. In my experience, many individuals feel the same way. It is also reflected in how often many of us check our devices,” he writes.

If you think this is over the top, consider what he says next based on the writing of British psychiatrist Donald W. Winnicott.

“When we hold our phones, it reminds us of moments of intimacy – whether from our childhood or from our adult life. The brain chemical dopamine and love hormone oxytocin, which play a role in the addiction “high,” kick in. These chemicals also create a sense of belonging and attachment. Holding our phone has the same effect as when a parent looks lovingly at her child or when two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes.”

I thought Chinese and a movie made for a relaxed evening.

There was an undercurrent of anxiety that dissipated when Ted announced the router was working and Erica started the movie. I stretched out on the couch with my pie and ice cream with Ted on one side and Sydney snuggled in the cushions on the other. She had a bowl of popcorn in her lap with her iPad. Wonder Woman was playing. Alex was buried in pillows in an adjoining chair with her iPad. Erica was back and forth to the kitchen.

I glanced over at the twins. They weren’t watching the movie.

“Sorry, the wi-fi has been down all day,” she was writing, before catching my glance and turning the screen away.

Indeed, I had interrupted a moment of intimacy. And I remember those days when they couldn’t be separated from a ratty looking stuffed green elephant and their collection of Ugly Dolls. How it’s changed, or maybe it hasn’t.

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