By Terry Gaspard, LICSW
As technology plays an increasingly integral role in our lives, the paradox at the heart of constantly “being connected” is becoming clearer every day. Indeed, with the rise of smart phones and the proliferation of social media, we’re simultaneously discovering new ways to meet people and stay in touch, while also being physically distant from our loved ones.
There is recent evidence that advances in technology such as instant messaging, text, and social media threaten to strip away important aspects of the way couples and family members relate and connect with one another. Consumers globally have strong emotional ties to the internet and spend a significant amount of time using it in their daily lives.
Although technology has enhanced our society in a multitude of ways, it’s made it more challenging for all family members to communicate effectively. Most couples report that they have to compete with their kid’s iPhone, iPad, or iPod. No matter what the device, parents, couples, and children simply don’t have adequate face to face communication when they’re high users of technology.
If you regularly spend time fostering positive communication and talking or sharing an activity, you’ll be much happier in your relationships than if you don’t. It’s wise to pay close attention to how technology can bring knowledge but can also create emotional distance when it plays too large a role in your free time or communication.
10 ways technology can negatively impact your relationships:
- Meal times. Reputable studies recommend that family members stay unplugged from technology at key times and allow plenty of time to connect – especially during meals – if they want to maintain loving, respectful, and nurturing relationships.
- Intimacy: Sometimes the ways couples use technology can stir conflict and disagreements. A 2014 Pew Study showed that one in four cell phone owners found their romantic partner distracted by their phone. This study found that nearly 1 in 10 of these cell phone users had argued with a partner about excessive use and that many arguments had to do with cell use.
- Communication: It takes time to turn towards your partner (rather than turning away) and couples who spend excessive time on technology have less time to talk and listen to each other. According to John Gottman, responding to your partner’s bids for attention fosters healthy communication and can help couples create a dialogue that addresses issues as they come up – rather than burying emotions and having them turn into resentment and hostility.
- Distraction: With so many things at our fingertips and with instant satisfaction a click, call or chat away, couples are experiencing the inevitable consequence of this newly created expectation of immediacy. Ironically, despite the ease with which we can “connect,” we’re generally less present and in tune with our partners. According to a 2015 poll of 453 people across the US, nearly half reported being distracted by their phones in the presence of their romantic partner.
- Time Spent with Children: In 2019, David Schramm, a Utah State University Assistant Professor reported that 6 out of 10 adults expressed concern about the influence technology has on their relationship with their children. They also didn’t know where to turn for information about this problem.
- Addiction: Online addiction is common among Smartphone users. It’s not uncommon to see a couple or family in a restaurant that are glued to their phones. Signs of cell phone addiction include checking your phone in social situations and times when you shouldn’t (such when you are driving). Another sign is feeling compelled to use your phone when you’re bored or restless.
- Mental Health: Heavy use of technology has been shown to negatively impact mental health. According to a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, “heavy use of social media has also been shown to negatively affect mental health.” The researchers “examined depression rates in younger adults, [and found] significantly increased odds of depression among those spending the most time engaged in social media.”
- Social Interaction: In fact, Smartphone use lessons enjoyment of face-to-face interaction. According to a 2018 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, when people have access to Smartphones, they experience less pleasure in real world social interactions.
- Texting Can Lead to Couples Feeling Disconnected: A 2013 study by Brigham Young University examined 276 young adults in committed relationships, and discovered that couples who communicate constantly through text messages report lower relationship quality. In fact, the women in the study who received apologies or tried to work out their differences with their partners via texts reported higher levels of unhappiness. For men in the BYU study, too frequent texting was associated with lower relationship quality.
- Technology Use in Bed is Associated with Less Sexual Intimacy: In the study mentioned above, David Schramm, a Utah State University Assistant Professor found that nearly 25 percent of the participants in his study reported that their partner’s use of technology in bed interfered with their sexual relationship.
What is the Solution?
Many experts, report that a good first step to reversing the negative impact of technology on your relationships is unplugging at mealtimes. It may not be possible to do this for every meal, but try to turn off the TV and put away your cell phone during mealtimes. Your emails and Facebook feed can wait.
4 creative ways to limit the use of technology in your home:
- Turn off your phone! Or better yet put them away for at least one hour each evening. It’s also a good idea to have a “Tech Free Zone” in the most important areas of your home, such as the dining room, where family members silence or put away their phones and devices. Be sure to talk though hard stuff face-to-face and reserve texts for quick check-ins or scheduling issues.
- Socialize while you are cooking: All family members can take turns setting the table, doing dishes, cleaning their own plates, and enjoying chatting during meals.
- Spend two to three hours together on weekends as a couple and/or family unplugged. Go outside or go somewhere fun. Try a low-key activity such as playing a game of checkers, chess, or cards. What you do together is less important than connecting as a couple and with friends and family members.
- Turn off technology one hour prior to bedtime when possible. Younger family members might have more difficulty with this but can adapt over time by reading and/or listening to music.
Studies show that when people power down from electronic devises, the quality of their conversation and ability to actively listen and support one another goes up, they exercise more, and they’re more tuned into their surroundings. However, high use of the internet is associated with less intimacy and sexual activity, poor communication and mental health; and being less sociable.
Undeniably, while our devices can help us stay in touch more easily, they also create barriers to true intimacy that wouldn’t exist without technology. The consequences for relationships are becoming abundantly clear, and it requires awareness and effort to safeguard them from the difficulties caused by the digital age.
Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020.