I recently started binge watching episodes of Mad Men. Since I was born in 1955 the show naturally speaks to my early childhood, and more directly to the world of my parents. While my family was relatively poor there still are significant similarities between my parents world and that portrayed in the adults in Mad Men. 

One of the most glaring characteristics of the era is the fact that adults often had at least one of their hands occupied with beverage or cigarette. My parents and their tribe did not drink hard alcohol as much as the Madison Avenue types, so other than in evening social gatherings the glass of liquor was replaced by cups of coffee. 

My mom in particular spent the bulk of her waking hours smoking cigarettes (between two and three packs a day) and drinking coffee, a pot or two a day is my recollection. Most of my parents friends and relatives also smoked and drank with great regularity. While the confines of many jobs, such as factory work, kept a lid on both smoking and the drinking of coffee (and a few years later carbonated beverages) free hands usually were occupied by one or the other.

Though my mom was surely addicted to nicotine and dependent on caffeine, she was equally dependent on the oral habits of both activities. My mom stated and even looked lost, “naked”,  and lonely without a cigarette or cup of coffee in her hand. I can recall many occasions where my mom would go through an entire cigarette without even taking a single puff. 

She would be sitting on the couch deep in conversation with a friend with her hand poised above the ash tray occasionally flicking away a long ash and never once taking a drag. When the cigarette burned to its completion she would instantly replace the old cigarette in her hand with a new one, and continue talking. 

My mother, and many of her contemporaries, only seemed to feel complete and secure with a cigarette in hand. Sure cigarettes were chemically addictive and people began to be aware of the oral addiction of beverage and cigarette alike, but no one seemed to focus on the hands being occupied habit.

Cigarettes were the adult version of the toddlers stuffed toy or “security’ blanket, whose softness they found comforting, but also the object became part of their body image. A toddler often felt incomplete and vulnerable without their “softy’ in their hands or being cradled in their arms.

Looking back at my early childhood it now seems pretty obvious to me that the majority of adults and parents I knew used cigarettes, coffee and alcohol as hand held transitional object companions that had them feel complete. Without such objects in their hand they felt alone, empty, vulnerable and experienced a sense of loss. A hand without a cigarette mourned the emptiness similar to a widow misses the physical presence of their spouse in bed and around the house after they die.

I think the same sense of being incomplete, of an empty hand being experienced as a deep loss,  and the missing of an integral body part is now being replaced by the smartphone. Screen addiction is becoming accepted as an official diagnosis. Like cigarettes there seems to be a recognized habit addiction, but I do feel we are yet to fully realize that its not just a habit, but smartphones are becoming central to many people’s body image. Without their smartphone, they aren’t just disconnected from the virtual social world and missing the habit of having it in their hand, but it’s more than their hand being empty, it is experienced as missing a vital part of their body. 

Just as a young toddler’s identity and body image is made complete by their transitional object, so to are an increasing number of youngsters, teens, and adults feeling incomplete and physically deformed without their smartphone safely in their hand. The belief that the smartphone screen addiction is mainly about staying socially connected, or is just a habit of the hand, is missing a very important element of the smartphone. Smartphones are being experienced as an integral part of the body, where an empty hand is felt as an incomplete body.

It is not unusual for toddlers to give their stuffed toys a name, imbuing them with a personality and speaking to them as if they are a companion. While this is considered to be a generally healthy and natural stage of development it does become problematic when a toddler isolates and walls themselves off from the community of others and communicates almost exclusively with their stuffed toy.  

With smartphones, being our companion is less of an act of imagination that the stuffed toy. Smartphones can now speak to us with a human voice, they can inform and educate us, and even tell us stories. As the technology improves they will be able to converse and entertain us in an increasingly sophisticated and seductive way. Most toddlers eventually find the real world of others to be more rewarding than the pretend world of stuffed toys and inanimate objects, I’m not so sure if the same realization will be made to those addicted to smartphones.

Jim Guido