It would seems logical to assume that those involved in the creation of social media would encourage its use as a way to stay connected and involved with others.
But Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of the founder of social media giant Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has a different approach. The 32-year-old CEO of Zuckerberg Media is encouraging people through her website and books to find a healthy balance between virtual and real life.
“Technology has given us unprecedented opportunity to connect and share. While this is a wonderful thing, we also need to remind ourselves that a life truly well lived is not a life constantly buried in a smartphone,” said Randi.
Recent research bears out Zuckerburg’s ideas with insight into exactly how technology, if overused, can impact interpersonal relationships.
The study, “Technoference: The Interference of Technology in Couple Relationships and Implications for Women’s Personal and Relational Well-Being,” published in the journal for Psychology of Popular Media Culture (paywall), found that even the seemly small beeps and buzzes from our smartphones, and other technological devices, are not only disrupting our romantic relationships, but hindering them as well.
“Can we adapt to this new reality of the way our phones are always with us? I think we can. But is it decreasing the quality of our interactions potentially? I would say yes,” said Brandon T. McDaniel, 29, of Pennsylvania State University and lead researcher in the study.
McDaniel said that in recent years studies have looked at how media use has evolved into problematic or addictive behaviors and how technology use can negatively influence a relationship. However, he wanted to take a broader approach by looking at the everyday minor interruptions that are not that intentional.
McDaniel’s research included 143 married or co-habitating women in heterosexual relationships. In an online survey, the women were asked how frequently smartphones and other types of technology get in the way or interrupt the interactions that they have with their partners.
According to Sarah Coyne, 34, an associate professor of human development at Brigham Young University and co-author of the study, they found that “computers were rated as interfering most often in interactions between partners” by 74 percent. Computers were followed closely by cellphones at 70 percent, television at 71 percent and tablets at 32 percent.
“Everything is around 70 percent except for tablets. I think this is because at the time we collected the data, tablets were just starting to get popular so most people still didn’t own them yet,” Coyne said.
McDaniel said that 62 percent of the women said technology interferes “at least once a day or more often” with their couple free time. The researchers also found that the women who reported a higher rate of technology disturbances in their relationship also had lower relationship satisfaction.
“I hope when people see the study people will think ‘Wait a minute, maybe I do this more than I should.’ Or maybe, ‘My spouse is doing this and it kind of bothers me, but I never understood why,’ “ said Coyne.
Rude becomes normal
Ryan Shill, 25, an electrical engineer in Texas, said that the overuse of cellphones has proved to be frustrating in the dating realm.
“I had a date last week. We sat down. I really enjoyed the date but someone texted her something. She got a text and she just starting looking down at her lap, texting,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like we had a lull in the conversation. She did not even realize that she was doing it. I didn’t call her out.”
Shill said he initially considered the interruption “incredibly rude” but now wonders if that kind of behavior is normal.
Barrie Davenport, 55, a certified personal coach and author, said part of the problem with cellphones is that not only are they overused, but when people use the devices they tend to forget basic manners.
“When we are handed a tool, like a phone, that allows us to disregard everyone around us, being rude becomes the norm,” she said. “When you are on the phone, you are only conscientious of the person you are speaking with or what you are texting. You lose touch with the world around you.”
But Shill’s initial reaction to the interruption is also normal.
“If you are just beginning to date somebody or are getting to know them, there is nothing more off-putting than sitting with someone that keeps checking their phone, pulling it out, or taking a call in the middle of the date,” Davenport said. “It is not a very attractive quality to have.”
Davenport explained that the overuse of cellphones can be compared to the scenario of talking to someone at a party while constantly looking over your shoulder at others. When you keep looking over your shoulder or at your phone it sends subtle signals that you are not very interested in the conversation or the person at hand.
“You become absorbed with this device,” she said.
Davenport suggested that most people may not realize that they are ignoring their loved ones because they have developed a habit.
“It is almost like Pavlov’s dogs,” she said. “The buzzer rings and we start salivating.”
Find a balance
Habitual cellphone use and the use of other technological devices can become a major point of contention even if a relationship goes beyond a first date.
Karen Ruskin, 44, a psychotherapist, author and licensed marriage and family therapist in Massachusetts, said that in her 20 years of experience she has seen an escalation in martial conflict associated with technology.
“The ways in which technology interferes with couples is the emotional energy and literal time that you put into your technology relationships rather than your actual in-the-flesh relationships,” she said.
While some couples struggle with technology-related conflicts, other couples suggest that laying down expectations has helped them avoid these conflicts.
Chris Weiss, 26, a corrections officer in Kansas, said that when he and his now wife, Joanne, 23, a nurse, first started dating they were long distance, and cellphones were an avenue that allowed them to keep in touch.
As a married couple, they have continued to strengthen their relationship with less need to use technology.
“When we are together and someone calls, I might answer and say, ‘Hey I’m on a date with my wife. Can I call you back?,’ “ said Weiss.
Joanne Weiss explained that if mobile phones ever become too distracting during their quality time, they bring it to the other’s attention.
“Sometimes when I sit there and play on my phone she will actually say, ‘Hey, put your phone away!,’ “ said Chris, laughing. “When we don’t have our phones, we are there talking together. It is one of the reasons I fell in love with her -- that we were able to have long conversations.”
Take time to unplug
While some couples, like the Weisses, have been able to balance their technology use in their marriage, others may consider unplugging now and then.
The nonprofit Reboot sponsors an annual National Day of Unplugging, which will be March 6 and 7 this year. This event challenges people worldwide to reconnect with each other by unplugging and putting aside their electronic devices for 24 hours.
Reboot spokeswoman Tanya Schevitz said the point behind National Day of Unplugging is not anti-technology but to encourage people to look at their own use of technology and consider how they might achieve a better balance.
She said that she has talked to some couples at the Reboot-sponsored events who acknowledge technology has interfered with their relationship.
“They start to get in a little bit of an argument because people really do start to feel second class to digital devices,” she said.
Zuckerberg sees events like the National Day of Unplugging as also showing individuals how they can best use the technology available to them.
“By being mindful of how we use technology in our daily lives, and by consciously taking time to unplug and invest in ourselves and our most important relationships, we send the message that we respect our personal time, we value our loved ones and that we control our devices, not the other way around,” she said. “Only then can we truly unlock the best that technology offers us.”
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