Attachment Theory + Digital Behavior 

by Alexis Irias in
woman in sunglasses and pink top holding phone

Attachment style is theorized to be the way we respond emotionally to others. This can be seen in our behavior, interactions, and communication with the people closest to us, our significant others, and close friends.

Do you find yourself being clingy and/or have a need for constant validation in your relationships? Or are you more likely to be unattached to your partner (or the relationship) to the point where your relationships fail because you don’t give them the attention desired or expected?

The first example above can be associated with the anxious attachment style whereas the second is associated with the avoidant attachment style.

Anxious attachment and avoidant attachment are two examples of insecure attachment styles. Anxiously attached individuals tend to worry about their partner leaving and therefore are in need of constant reassurance which is fueled by their insecurities. There is a deep fear of abandonment and they display ‘“neediness” or “clinginess” in their relationships. Avoidant attachment, on the other hand, is marked by a fear of intimacy. Individuals with this attachment style will prioritize work and their personal hobbies to the expense of their personal relationships. They come across as emotionally unavailable and prefer to be independent and rely on themselves. The fearful-avoidant attachment style, also known as disorganized attachment, is a combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. They desperately crave affection while also avoiding it at all costs.

According to psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby, the two theorists who developed attachment theory in the 1950s, the purpose of attachment theory is to understand the process of developing stable, emotionally intelligent connections with healthy boundaries. Children who grew up in an environment with unstable, overbearing, neglectful or unhealthy boundaries with their primary caregivers are more likely to have an unhealthy, or insecure, attachment style in adulthood.

Insecure attachment can also stem from unhealthy or even traumatic first relationships (friendships or/and lovers) in childhood, teenage years, and adulthood.

Millennials and Attachment Theory in a Digital World

A study of 1,580 millennials from eight technical institutions in eastern India explored the meaning of happiness among millennials. Among their sources of happiness, interpersonal relationships was found to be the primary motivation for millennials happiness. This is consistent with well-known theories of belongingness and attachment as drivers for human flourishing.

Interpersonal relationships, communication, and social behavior are being redefined by Millennials within an increasingly digital world. A study on Mobile Phones and Social Behaviour among Millennials showed that millennials use mobile phones to e-communicate simultaneously with other people even when they are face to face with one person or more. This new social phenomenon is called “Phubbing”. In a study including 450 people in the US, phubbing appeared regularly between 46% of partners and about 23% of them have serious conflicts.

Attachment theory offers a possible model to explain the development of compulsive and problematic digital use. A study of 497 students showed that students with problematic smartphone use mostly had an “insecure” attachment style. Another study by the same researcher found that from 245 subjects recruited, participants with insecure attachment style showed a higher tendency to pathological Internet usage compared with securely attached participants.

The social compensatory component plays a significant role in the context of excessive smartphone use. The research correlates this with individuals with an “ambivalent-closed” attachment style that show a distinct desire to connect with others yet demonstrate difficulties with social acceptance and opening up to others. Therefore, they tend to use the smartphone to compensate for the deficits they are experiencing regarding interpersonal relationships.

“The anonymity of the Internet allows individuals to create a new representation of the self, which could allow them to compensate for dreaded “real” acceptance problems.” — Comparison of Students With and Without Problematic Smartphone Use in Light of Attachment Style

It is becoming more evident that insecure attachment paired with living in an increasingly more digital world is limiting an individual’s ability to develop healthy communication skills and relationships.

Why This is Important

Research shows that left unaddressed, insecurely attached individuals are more likely to gravitate toward compulsive behaviors, including pathological internet use, and often develop unhealthy or codependent connections in adulthood. Millennials, being the first connected generation with 93% of them owning smartphones are defining new patterns in social behavior, communication, interpersonal relationships, and interaction. In an increasingly more digital world, 58.4% of college students in the United States identify with an insecure attachment style. These insecure attachment disorders display an increase in maladaptive digital behaviors. Some hypothesize that maladaptive digital behaviors, such as reassurance seeking and impulsivity, lead to addictive, antisocial, and risky patterns of digital use. This may include an obsessive preoccupation with the smartphone, frustration when the smartphone is not available, relying on the smartphone to alleviate an unpleasant mood, and interference with interpersonal or work-related activities.

Improving our Digital Behavior

Awareness is the first step towards change. Hence the name Digitally Aware. Having an awareness of our digital behavior is a great start. Now, adding to that, can we develop an awareness of our attachment style with the goal of not only improving our interpersonal relationships but also our digital behavior?

Attachment is an emotional tie that connects one individual to another. Individuals that have a secure attachment in relationships reported fewer communication problems, while those who were high in anxious attachment in friendships and romantic relationships showed higher levels of conflicts in these relationships. Higher levels of conflict were also seen when avoidant attachment was present in romantic relationships whereas those who had demonstrated secure attachment showed higher levels of psychological well-being, while anxious attachment in peer and romantic relationships was the strongest predictor of low levels of psychological well-being. There are a ton of resources to understand attachment style more: Here’s a book I found interesting. I just took this attachment quiz and found it useful.

Taking it a step further, if you’re ready to do some work on your attachment style and compulsive digital behavior…

Therapeutic Approaches

Attachment-focused therapy, with the end result of secure attachment, is currently being used in substance abuse treatment yielding positive results. These studies indicate that a similar approach of attachment-focused therapy to treating compulsive digital behavior. The use of attachment theory within psychotherapeutic interventions is showing to be helpful in dealing with emotional stress and thereby prevent using the smartphone dysfunctionally to influence emotions. There is ample evidence for the relationship between insecure attachment and substance abuse. Therefore, because there are similar mechanisms underlying substance dependence and internet addiction, attachment theory can make an important contribution to understanding preconditions associated with the development of behavior addictions, making it both plausible and feasible.

A therapeutic modality used specifically to treat the fear of not having access to a mobile phone, also known as Nomophobia, is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR.) Individuals who are emotionally more dependent and crave more closeness and attention in relationships tend to display higher levels of fear or discomfort when they don’t have access to their mobile phones (Arpaci et al. 2017). A study by Regan et al. (2020) that included 135 participants with 68% being female found that higher mindfulness was significantly associated with lower boredom proneness, impulsivity, and problematic smartphone use.

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is another attachment-based modality used for couples and families with insecure attachment dynamics. At a three-year follow up from an EFT therapeutic study for couples with an attachment injury, there was an increase in trust, forgiveness and dyadic adjustment. Couples who received EFT reported higher levels of empathy, self-disclosure, emotional intimacy, and stability than couples who received a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. When used with people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), EFT clients reported fewer insecure attachments and anxiety in relationships (Priest, 2013). In GAD and insecure attachment treatment using CBT, a higher treatment-dropout rate was reported as well as less treatment satisfaction (Priest, 2013). Emotion focused treatment has made the connection between anxiety and insecure attachment in interpersonal relationships, otherwise attempted to alleviate with compulsive behaviors or substances.

Conclusion

Whether you decide to go the therapeutic route or not, I believe that developing increased awareness about your attachment style and your digital behavior can help in developing more secure attachment behaviors within interpersonal relationships. With this, not only will your relationships improve but you’ll start to see an overall improvement in your communication skills as well.

Initial research on this topic done for an academic paper for Research Methodology graduate-level class in which I was paired with Joanna Halverson.

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