How Our Devices Are Hurting Our Relationships

How our devices are hurting our relationships

Do smartphones connect us or drive us apart?

As the use of digital devices has exploded over the past decade — more than 95 percent of Americans now own a cell phone —many are asking how, exactly, our cell phone manners (or lack thereof) affect our relationships. One one hand, it’s easy to say that people are more connected than ever, with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram providing new and instant avenues to communicate with family and friends all over the world. How else can one stay in touch with old classmates from high school or that great-aunt who lives across the country? And, of course, the ubiquitous smartphone makes it simple to reach people at any time with a quick text or even, heaven forbid, an actual phone call.

While no one is dismissing the benefits of enhanced communication with loved ones, a more ominous side to digital device usage exists: In-person relationships seem to be suffering.

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Are You Phubbing Up Your Relationships?

Recent studies suggest that smartphone use can be detrimental to relationships. A 2016 survey found that about 60 percent of couples report that they’re not satisfied in their current relationships, and though the standard issues still play a role — with factors like finances, sex, and kids coming in high on the list of relationship woes — cell phone etiquette is emerging as a source of strife. Baylor University’s Dr. James A. Roberts and Dr. Meredith David even coined a term for this new slight: “phubbing.” A mash-up of “phone” and “snubbing,” this very new vocabulary term succinctly sums up what happens when one, or both, members of a couple ignore each other and pay attention to their phones instead.

Consider that the average American checks their smart phone about 150 times per day. That statistic adds up to a phone check about every six and a half minutes, or 150 chances to “phub” a loved one every day…. and all that phubbing is adding up. In fact, seventy percent of participants in one study shared that phubbing had a detrimental influence on their ability to interact with their partner. That means that most people have likely been either the victim or the perpetrator of a phubbing incident. It’s understandable;  after all, those little screens are practically designed to be irresistible, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by the need to read that incoming text message, see what’s new on the Facebook feed, or read the most recent bit of breaking news.

But when that need to keep up with the latest information (or to play just one more round of Candy Crush) takes precedence over actually interacting with real-life friends and family, the focus on devices can become a problem.

Warning Signs to Watch

Roberts and Davis identify several forms of common phubbing behavior to watch for:

  • Placing a smart phone screen up within the line of sight, while engaging in a conversation with a partner
  • Checking the smart phone any time the conversation lulls or slows
  • Using and focusing on a smartphone when the couple is out together

Phubbing can lead to a number of relationship issues. First, this form of behavior creates conflict; when one partner feels snubbed by the other, hurt feelings often ensue. This leads to lowered levels of satisfaction with the relationship, in turn leading to decreased levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, to increased feelings of depression. Overall, the more smart phone-related conflict resulted in lower levels of self-reported satisfaction within a relationship.

Like many other behaviors that can become addictive, smart phone use can  trigger a burst of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter, within the brain, leading to a sense of pleasure and reward. Over time, checking the phone and receiving that reward becomes hard-wired. This explains why many people use their phones without even thinking about it.

So how can people work to decrease phubbing behavior? Smart phones aren’t going anywhere, so finding ways to mitigate their potential to do harm is key. The obvious solution —  spending less time on a screen — is accurate, but getting to that point may required a bit of strategy. Setting clear boundaries on phone usage, developing screen-free times of day or parts of the home, and reducing (or even eliminating) notifications can make a big difference.

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