Smartphones and Connection
Examining the Ways Our Smartphones Affect our Relationships
Guest blog from Dr. Marisa Cohen, relationship scientist, marriage and family therapist.
We live in a digital world, which means that we are often, if not always, connected. While many use smartphones to plug in to social networks and reach out to loved ones, being linked in this way can also diminish in-person connections. Smartphones are tools, and as such they are not to blame. It is important to pause and intentionally reflect on the technology we use and the way in which we use it, as well as our perceptions of the effect it has on us so that we can determine whether our relationships with our devices are healthy or unhealthy. Reflecting in this manner can help us determine whether or not our usage is benefitting or deteriorating our mental health and connections and enable us to set clear goals for adjusting and customizing our relationships with our phones. If we do identify a problem with being present and prioritizing our real life experiences, changing the way we connect can enhance both our in person and virtual connections.
Technology As a Tool
We use our phones to engage with social media, shop, take courses, find potential partners, pay bills, etc. While the smartphone keeps us connected to our larger social networks, there are both pros and cons to frequent and prolonged use. Many people operate on autopilot when it comes to their phones, buying them and downloading apps, using the preloaded settings, and enabling all notifications. Each popup on the phone can give us a nice little dopamine hit, and as such, reinforce our tendency to constantly check them. However, over time, this constant monitoring can create anxiety and erode our relationships.
As noted, it is not technology in and of itself that is problematic. Rather, the way in which we use it has the potential to impact our connections. Taking a mindful pause to examine our relationships to our phones, and potential dependence on them is important. By doing this we can set goals so that we are better adept at shifting between plugging in to technology and engaging with our surroundings, as well as the people by whom we are surrounded.
In my role as a clinician smartphone usage is a common topic of conversation. Specifically, many couples lament their inability to spend quality time with one another engaging in conversation or jointly completing an activity. What many report is that being in the moment is often interrupted by the realization that one or both partners’ attention is divided between the person in front of them and the world in their phone. Additionally, many discuss the stress associated with the constant barrage of notifications, inability to ever feel fully disconnected from work and other responsibilities, and tendency to doomscroll, which negatively impacts sleep and increases anxiety.
Pros and Cons of Smartphone Usage
There are many benefits to technology such as the smartphone. Partners can use them to express affection, as we can connect with one another when not physically in the same place. Smartphones also keep us apprised of one another’s location and are helpful in terms of working together to accomplish tasks, such as sharing calendars, to do lists, or offloading some of the work that would otherwise take away from time with our partner. Additionally, smartphones can help people keep track of their relationships over time by revisiting pictures or messages from an earlier stage of the partnership. There are also several apps that focus on relationship education and enhancement, which encourage people to engage in couples exercises and quizzes to learn more about one another.
On the downside, social media can take us out of the present moment and deteriorate the quality of connection partners have. An example is missing a partner’s request for connection, which may be a verbal or nonverbal message aimed at getting attention. Partners who are present and respond to the request, signal to their counterparts that they are emotionally attuned to them. A partner who has their attention on their phone will miss the initial request for connection. Phones can also dampen the pre-existing connection we have and reduce focus when engaged in a task. Phubbing, or phone snubbing, is when a person ignores their partner and instead focuses on the phone. This can be incredibly detrimental to relationships, as partners being phubbed may feel as if they are not being valued or heard. Additionally, checking our phones and responding to notifications can create a stress response, which can impact our mental and physical health. As noted, responding to notifications is often reinforced, as we get a dopamine hit when we have notifications alerting us to social interactions or likes. This can create a cyclical process in which we are reinforcing the very behavior that is contributing to our anxiety.
So now that we know the benefits and drawbacks of prolonged and frequent usage what can we do? Consider a reset! Below you will find some helpful steps for examining and altering your relationship with your device.
Tips for a Smartphone Relationship Reset
Reflect on your smartphone usage and determine your personal goals.
It is important for us to examine our relationships with our smartphones. This involves an intentional, mindful pause, which allows us to reflect on how we are using them and for what purpose. Taking the time to examine our usage will help us determine the space between where we are and where we want to be, which will enable us to make the adjustments that are necessary to remove the potential hold it has on us.
Have a discussion about smartphone and social media use.
A mismatch in partners’ habits and views of phone usage can lead to conflict. Discussing the importance, or lack thereof, of your smart devices can provide partners with insight that they may not have previously had. It would be helpful to know what your partner learned about their own behavior in their usage reflection. If they are hoping to reset their relationship, you may be able to enlist one another as sources of support and accountability.
Create a signal to indicate the need for quality time.
Creating a signal with your loved ones can be a helpful way of indicating when it’s time to switch from the digital to the real world and to be sure that no requests for connection go unnoticed. This signal can be either verbal cue such as “let’s put the phones away for a while,” or a non-verbal gesture. Whatever you both decide on should signal that it is time to disengage with the device and be present in the moment.
Remove the temptation!
Sometimes we pick up our devices without awareness. If this is the case, the person doing this may not actually be engaged with their phone but is still signaling to their partner that their interest is elsewhere. If you mindlessly go to grab the phone, remove it as an option by putting it in another room or space.
Our tendency to grab our phone and start scrolling is a difficult pattern to break. Simply taking the time to reflect on your relationship with your device is an important first step. After analyzing your use and determining your needs, communicating with your loved ones about your goals is a wonderful way to garner support and ensure your success. Remember that customization is key! Each person (and relationship) has unique needs, so it is important to spend time engaged in trial and error, limiting notifications and/or removing apps, so that you find a good balance that works for you. Once we alter our relationships with our devices, we not only enhance our connection to the present moment, but the connection we have with ourselves and one another.
In the spirit of connecting, we need not approach customizing our devices on our own. If you need assistance, go to UScellular.com/findus for helpful tips and information.
About Marisa Cohen Ph.D.
Dr. Marisa T. Cohen is a relationship scientist, marriage and family therapist, and teaches college-level psychology courses. She is the founder of Embracing Change Marriage and Family Therapy which provides therapeutic services to individuals, couples, and families. She is also the author of From First Kiss to Forever: A Scientific Approach to Love, a book that relates relationship science research to everyday experiences and real relationship issues confronted by couples. Marisa is passionate about discovering and sharing important relationship research from the field, and has given guest lectures at locations including the 92nd Street Y, Strand Bookstore, and the New York Hall of Science. She is also a 2021 TEDx Speaker, has appeared in segments for Newsweek, and is the subject of a piece focusing on her work, which aired on BRIC TV. She has also appeared on many podcasts and radio shows to discuss the psychology of love and ways in which we can improve our relationships.