Whether you call it technoference, phubbing, or just plain annoying, dealing with technology in our relationships can be challenging. From over 50 years of research, we know that the quality of our social connections is the number one predictor of our happiness. We also know from the research that email, social media, online gaming, and texting are poor substitutes for those crucial in-person interactions that help us feel secure and happy. Since smartphones, social media, and other technology are pervasive and universal, how do we find the balance? Today I’m sharing all the things you need to know about how technologies are impacting your relationships and my top seven tips for finding balance and connection instead.
We’ve now got over 50 years of happiness research showing us, unequivocally, that the number one predictor of happiness and life satisfaction is the quality of our relationships with our partners, friends, family, coworkers, and even neighbors. People with more friends are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping.
Social media, email, and texting make it easier to connect, but does that connection do the job of making us happier? The research says, “No.” Studies have shown that social media, online gaming, email, and texting are no substitutes for in-person interactions. Voice and video calls were somewhat better (although later research also questioned the value of even those technologies).
When you lower your social connectedness, not only does it suck for you, but it also hurts the people you love, especially your kids. One study showed that 62% of kids thought their parents were too distracted to listen to them, and the number one reason listed was their parents’ phone use.
It doesn’t take Freud to see that when you take part in any of these isolated diversions, whether that’s scrolling through social media, playing video games, or watching videos on your phone, you’re reducing the amount of social interaction and connection you could be having in any given moment.
Let’s Talk Technology in General
The Pew research center found the following:
- 51% of people say their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their cellphone when they’re trying to have a conversation with them.
- 40% say they are often or sometimes bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their phone.
- 34% say they’ve looked through their partner’s cellphone without their knowledge (although 70% of people say it’s not OK to do this).
- Among partnered adults, women are more likely than men to say they’re often bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their cellphone or playing video games.
- Younger Americans in relationships are especially likely to view social media as having an important role in connecting and keeping up with their partner.
- About 30% of partnered adults who use social media say that these sites are at least somewhat important in showing how much they care about their partner (33%) or keeping up with what’s going on in their partner’s life (28%). But this varies substantially by age, with 48% of 18- to 29-year-olds saying these platforms are very or somewhat important in how they show how much they care about their partner, compared with 28% of those ages 30 and older. And I would say this number goes way down or becomes nil the older you get.
- Social media is often a source of jealousy and uncertainty in relationships, especially for younger adults, with women being more likely to tell their partners that they don’t like what they’re doing on social media.
Technoference refers to the interruptions or distractions caused by technology when you’re trying to communicate with someone. This might be that they answer or look at their phone while you’re speaking to them, or that they’re scrolling through their IG feed while you’re watching a movie together, or that they play video games all night and then are too tired in the morning to get up and help with the kids. These types of behavior negatively impact our mood and how we feel about that relationship.
Phubbing is a type of technoference specifically related to your smartphone. Whether it’s with your partner, coworker, or friend, it’s almost a sure thing that you’ve phubbed or been phubbed. Phubbing is ignoring someone in favor of your phone and, whether intentional or not, it’s more detrimental to your relationships than you think.
In recent years, there’s been a good amount of research on phubbing, and it’s been found to decrease marital satisfaction. It affects each partner’s feelings, including how depressed they are and their overall satisfaction with life. “Ironically, phubbing is meant to connect you, presumably, with someone through social media or texting,” says Emma Seppälä, a psychologist at Stanford and Yale universities and author of the Happiness Track. “But it actually can severely disrupt your present-moment, in-person relationships.”
When you’re on your phone, it means you’re prioritizing something or someone else over the person you’re with. We’re built, as a species, to be extremely attuned to others, especially our partners. Thus, when we think that someone (especially our partner) isn’t giving us their full attention, we feel disregarded, unheard, and disrespected.
Research shows that when people have a conversation without their smartphone around (regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or starting mood), they feel more connected, report better more productive conversations, and are much happier. At the end of the day, we feel more empathy and connection when our smartphones are put away. In fact, studies have shown that just having a phone out during a conversation (i.e., sitting on the table next to you) interferes with your sense of connection to the other person, the feelings of closeness you experience, and the quality of the conversation!
When I ask couples about when they first met, they often tell me how they stayed up all night talking or how they used to talk for hours. It’s in these moments that we connect. It’s in these moments that we learn about our partners, share vulnerabilities, hear the tone of their voice, have eye contact, and sense their body language. All of these pieces form the foundation of our relationships. If you want to have close or trusting relationships with others, you’ve got to have good, face-to-face conversations and interactions.
And the same goes for your other relationships. If you’re out at the park with your kids, get off your phone and interact with them. If you’re in a work meeting, don’t check your emails or scroll through social media; give the meeting your full attention (if everyone did this, those meetings would be shorter and more productive)! This is especially important in these days of Zoom and video meetings. Give the meeting 100% of your attention because it’s harder to create trust and connection this way, so you’ve really got to work it!
MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle has been studying the impact of technology on how we behave (alone and in groups) for the last 25 years. Turkle’s research shows that 89% of Americans say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, despite the fact that 82% said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in! Basically, we’re doing something that we know is hurting our interactions.
In her studies, she’s found that if you put a cellphone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things that you wouldn’t mind being interrupted. Second, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other, so they end up more disconnected and feeling like the conversation wasn’t satisfying.
And using a smartphone in social interactions doesn’t just hurt the relationship, it also devalues your own experience. One study found that people who used their smartphones while dining out with friends experienced less interest and enjoyment and more boredom than people who didn’t. As if all that isn’t enough, studies have also shown that phubbing hurts our mental health in other ways. Phubbing has been found to threaten four “fundamental needs”: self-esteem, meaningful existence, control, and belongingness. The act of phubbing causes people to feel excluded, diminished (I’m not that important), and ostracized.
As a race, we seem to be in complete denial when it comes to our phones. Although we see the damage when others phub us, we still do it ourselves! We keep checking our phones because, even though we might know it’s bad, it’s very difficult to “just stop” this compulsive behavior.
We check our phones, email, and social media accounts because it provides us with what researchers call “variable-ratio” reinforcement. What this means is that once in a while, we get an email, comment, or like on social media or a message that is particularly rewarding, and that “once in a while” is enough to keep us compulsively checking the rest of the time. (You might be interested to know that slot machines also provide variable-ratio rewards).
Consider this: According to research by Wilhelm Hoffman of Chicago University, the urge to check social media is stronger than the urge for sex!
We are profoundly social creatures. Having connection and a sense of belonging is crucial for our health and happiness. Research has actually shown that lacking these connections (loneliness) can be worse for your health than smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. So, we screw up. We look for connection on social media at the cost of face-to-face opportunities for true intimacy. Ironically, using our smartphones tricks us into thinking we’re connected when, really, we’re sacrificing true close and connected relationships.
But What if I’m Interacting?
You might argue that texting, DMs on social media, or even email doesn’t do harm to your social relationships because it’s interactive. But the problem with these types of technologies is that we lose something called dimensionality. No matter how many emojis you might use, texting and DM’s on social media simply can’t convey emotion very well because so much of communication is visual and auditory.
No one said it better than Arthur C. Brooks: “These technologies are to in-person interactions what a black-and-white, pixelated version of the Mona Lisa is to the real thing: identifiable, but incapable of producing the same emotional effects.”
With these types of communications, obviously, you end up having more shallow conversations and interactions, which doesn’t fill that connection bucket. When you talk face-to-face with someone, you go deeper and have more extensive communication. And we know from the research that these deeper talks bring you more well-being than those shorter conversations.
Here’s more from the research:
- Teens who texted more than their peers experienced more anxiety, depression, and aggression and had worse relationships with their fathers.
- You’ll feel more understood and satisfied with your partner when you have more face-to-face communication.
As with other forms of technology, video games can be a fun little escape or feel like an addiction. It can be a time to decompress, or it can create isolation and arguments. When video gaming becomes obsessive, it becomes a problem. Unhealthy video gaming looks like:
- Consistently playing for longer periods of time than you first intended
- Not being able to relax any other way
- Looking forward to playing more than you look forward to spending time with the important people in your life
- Spending time playing while ignoring important life functions such as interacting with your kids, your partner, cleaning, personal hygiene, exercise or work.
- Continuing to play despite negative consequences such as health issues, arguments with your partner or family, complaints from your kids, or problems at work due to your play
According to one study, video games were cited as a partial cause of divorce in 15% of cases. You don’t have to banish video gaming, but if it’s caused arguments or issues, it’s likely time to start making some changes with its importance in your life.
Seven Tips to Deal with Technology in Your Relationships
First and foremost, I want you to think of technology as a complement to your relationships and life, not a substitute for your relationships and life. With that in mind, here are my top tips to create balance and connection when it comes to technology and your relationships.
Tip #1: Practice Mindfulness
OMG, Abby, really? Mindfulness again?! YES! In my experience, the vast majority of people aren’t even aware that they’re phubbing or being unhealthy with technology. It’s become such a pervasive part of daily life and such a habit that you don’t even realize how much you’re doing it! Learning to be mindful and to make mindfulness a consistent habit is your first and most important step.
Tip #2: Create Device-Free Special Spaces
Designate your car, kitchen table, bed, backyard, or deck as a device-free zone. These spaces are set aside for face-to-face conversations only. I would say the most important is to make mealtimes sacred. When you have lunch with a friend, a coffee break with a colleague, or dinner with the family, don’t put a phone on the table. Make meals a time when you are there to listen and communicate. If you’re eating alone, still make it a device-free zone. Be with yourself, look around you, and maybe even introduce yourself to the person at the next table.
Tip #3: Do a Techno Fast
Stay off your phone completely for an entire day (or weekend). If you feel you just can’t do this, allocate fasting intervals during the day. Be off your phone (have it locked in a drawer or leave it in your car) from 9:00am to 12:00pm and again from 1:00pm to 4:00pm. Maybe only check your phone at two preset times per day, for no more than 15 minutes at a time.
I also highly recommend doing it with social media or video games. Fast for a few hours, a day, or a week. Make the commitment and pay close attention to your feelings when you have the urge to grab your device.
Tip #4: Replace Electronic Interactions with Face-to-Face Ones
I’ve already listed a ton of research that says one of the very best things you can do for both your mental and physical health is to build strong social relationships, and those relationships we have in person are more intimate and connected. Yes, you might have a follower on Instagram that you “chat” with all the time, but if you got sick, would this person bring over some chicken soup?
Confusing lots of contact with actual closeness and intimacy is a problem. Instead of spending all that time “chatting” on social media, make a lunch date with a friend and spend some quality time. We know that any activities that involve other people, whether it’s going to a party, sitting down for lunch, playing sports, or attending religious services, have positive effects on our mental health. In the end, face-to-face social interactions tend to improve our mood and reduce depression.
Tip #5: Shift Your Perspective
If you’re the one being phubbed, try not to take offense or get upset. Remember, the other person is following a biologically-driven impulse. Do your best to be compassionate and patient and let the other person know how the technoference makes you feel, and set a boundary that you aren’t OK with it when you’re interacting. The next time you’re with another human being, and you feel tempted to pull out your phone, stop yourself and put it away. Then, take the opportunity to look them directly in the eyes and really listen to what they have to say.
Tip #6: Set Up Techno Times
Have a conversation with your partner, kids, or other important people in your life about the effect technology is having on your relationship (remember to focus on feelings). Discuss how to find a balance and then set up specific times to allow technology instead of it being an all-day, never-ending thing. Maybe your partner will play video games four nights a week from 9:00-11:00, and you’ll take care of the kids and/or find other times to connect. Maybe you get to escape to play games on your phone or scroll through social media every day from 3:00-4:00, and someone else looks after the kids or walks the dog. Maybe all electronics go off after 9:00pm (I hear you gasping), or maybe you do that one night a week. I definitely highly encourage you to move your smartphone away from your bed and get a real alarm clock. Being clear with expectations for yourself and others will keep the disappointment low and the connections high.
Tip #7: Text Facts, Not Feelings
People come to me all the time telling me about fights and misunderstandings they’ve had over (and due to) text. The amount of confusion, missed cues, and frustrations that people experience due to texting blows my mind.
The one rule: Text only facts, not feelings.
Texting should only be used for logistics or emergencies. Nothing else. No conversations should happen over text that has any emotion, inner thoughts, or deeper messages. In other words, if you have to use an emoji to be understood, you shouldn’t text it. Whatever you text should be totally understandable without an “LOL,” “jk” or sad face in sight.
If you’re ready to share some feelings or discuss an issue, it’s time to stop texting and start talking face-to-face (or by phone, at the very least). We’ve become a society too accustomed to speaking “at a distance,” which leads to saying things we’d never say in person (check out Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets if you don’t believe me) and huge misunderstandings because we’re not hearing tone or seeing facial cues. Texting what should be said in person is not only a missed opportunity, but it’s also a chance to screw up royally.
Make a rule that you’ll only text logistics. This includes things like where to meet for drinks, what time you’re leaving work, and finding out if you need to pick up milk on the way home. None of these needs an emoji to understand its meaning or tone. It’s simple, straightforward, and to the point. If you want to throw in an “I love you” or “Can’t wait to see you,” be my guest but don’t start a conversation on this level.
In the end, it’s fine to use texting for help with everyday planning and coordination with someone, but everything else is off limits. If you’ve got something more to say, you’re going to need to use your mouth, not your fingers. (Unless you’re having sex with your partner, then you can use both).
One Last Thing: Sharing Passwords
Overall, sharing passwords to digital devices or accounts is a fairly common practice in romantic relationships. In a recent survey, a majority of Americans who are married, cohabiting, or in a committed relationship say they have given their spouse or partner the password for their cellphone (75%), their email account (62%), or any of their social media accounts (42%).
I think this is fine for emergency purposes, but I HIGHLY recommend that you don’t check your partner’s accounts, ever.
Resources for Dealing with Technology in Your Relationships
Research Dealing with Technology in Your Relationships
Nguyen, M. H., Gruber, J., Marler, W., Hunsaker, A., Fuchs, J., & Hargittai, E. (2022). Staying connected while physically apart: Digital communication when face-to-face interactions are limited. New Media & Society, 24(9), 2046–2067.
Newson, M., Zhao, Y., Zein, M. E., Sulik, J., Dezecache, G., Deroy, O., & Tunçgenç, B. (2021). Digital contact does not promote wellbeing, but face-to-face contact does: A cross-national survey during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Media & Society, 0(0).
Roberts, James A, David, Meredith E. “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners,”Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 54, 2016, Pages 134-141.
Misra, Shalini & Cheng, Lulu & Genevie, Jamie & Yuan, Miao. (2014). “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.” Environment and Behavior. 48(2)
Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237–246.
Dwyer, Ryan J, Kushlev, Kostadin, Dunn, Elizabeth W. “Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 78, 2018, Pages 233-239.
Coyne, Sarah M., Padilla-Walker, Laura M., Holmgren, Hailey G. “A Six-Year Longitudinal Study of Texting Trajectories During Adolescence,” Child Development, Volume 89, Issue1 January/February 2018 Pages 58-65.
Pollmann, Monique M.H., Norman, Tyler J., Crockett, Erin E. “A daily-diary study on the effects of face-to-face communication, texting, and their interplay on understanding and relationship satisfaction,” Computers in Human Behavior Reports, Volume 3, 2021.