Do smartphones hurt relationships?
It turns out that smartphones and electronic gadgets can hurt our interpersonal interactions. What is worse, a recent study shows that intimate interactions are affected more than casual interactions.
A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships July 19, 2012 shows that the mere presence of a smart phone can interfere with conversations between two people.
Two experiments were done to measure quality of relationship and feelings of empathy. In the first experiment strangers were put in pairs, and sat in a room that contained only a table two chairs and a book on the table and another object. For half the pairs, the other object was a smartphone and for the other half, the object was a pocket notebook the same size as the smartphone.
In this experiment, the pairs of strangers were asked to discuss an interesting event that occurred in the past month. Following the 10 minute discussion, the participants filled out questionnaires that measure relationship quality over time. This questionnaire included questions such as, “It is likely that my partner and I could become friends over time.”
The group with the smartphone present reported lower relationship quality and less closeness. Few of them believed they could ever become friends with their partner, for example. The results showed a lower level of connection between the partners when a smartphone was present.
The second experiment measured the effect of smartphone presence on intimate conversations and casual conversations. The set up was the same, but the pairs of strangers were given different tasks. One half of those pairs in each group were given the task of discussing their feelings about plastic trees for 10 minutes. The other half in each group were given the task of discussing the most meaningful event that had occurred in the past year.
The results of this experiment spell trouble for couples.
Partner empathy and partner trust were the items most adversely affected by the presence of a smartphone. The groups discussing the plastic tree showed a small difference from each other; however the groups discussing a meaningful events showed a dramatic difference.
The smartphone groups scored lower on the question “I felt I could really trust my partner,” and “I felt my partner could understand my feelings.” That is not good for intimate, romantic relationships.
So, why is this? How can the mere presence of a smartphone lead to such dramatic differences?
First, anything that provides a source of instant gratification will stimulate the reward centers of our brains. Studies show that just thinking about a morning cup of coffee causes endorphins to rise.
When alcoholics just look at a drink or drive by a liquor store, the reward center in the brain fires up. It isn’t much of a stretch to realize a smartphone could have the same effect.
Smart phones are full of apps that provide instant gratification. Think of all the games you play you just can’t put down. That type of brain stimulation is addictive. We are all naturally driven to engage in those types of activities; we enjoy the endorphin rush these thrills give us. We can reliably feel good after playing one of these games, so we begin to depend on them.
When facing a stressful event, we crave that endorphin rush even more. For example, we crave our morning cup of coffee more on work days than weekends. So it is very likely that the mere presence of a smartphone is causing the reward center to fire away.
Except for that beginning stage, when everything is new and exciting, relationships do not provide a reliable endorphin rush. People with their complexities and needs are not very predictable: sometimes they thrill, sometimes they don’t. Our partner does not just offer fun and games. More often than not partners approach each other with topics that are stressful: bills, children, work conflicts, emotional needs and jealousies. Our brains respond to this, the parts of our brains dealing with danger are activated in the mere presence of anything that has been a source of stress. If there is a smartphone nearby, our partners lose out, because the reward center will always win.
So, what do we do? Smartphones are an ever present part of our lives.
I will confess, I am one of those people addicted to my smartphone. It is a significant part of my work as a rural psychiatrist. I get calls and text messages from all over the hospital and clinic all day long as well as several nights a week. Given the stressful nature of my job, I also began to rely on the endorphin rush provided by my games.
I have started to experiment with designated “no smartphone zones.” As a family psychiatrist, I advice families to keep gadgets away from the dinner table. For people who depend on their phone for work, as I do, I suggest the smartphone be placed away from the table. I have started forwarding my calls to a landline during dinner time with my partner or family. When a landline is not available, I have a special ring tone for the hospital. All other sounds are ignored. I will be the first to admit that implementing this plan is not easy.
For couples, I recommend no cell phones in the bedroom. I know how difficult this is to follow because I have yet to do it myself. But, given the results of these studies, I am sure I will reap the benefits when I finally banish the smartphone from the bedroom.
Another strategy that has worked for me came about by accident. I have an older version of the iPhone and I inadvertently updated the operating software. All my games stopped working! I was able to easily update my medical apps, but I couldn’t find newer FREE versions of my favorite games. Rather than buying new games, instead I went into my kindle and found free games through Amazon Prime. Now, whenever I need that endorphin rush I grab the kindle. Over time, my smartphone has become less associated with fun, so I’m probably not getting that endorphin rush. So, that might be a solution for you: take the games out of the smartphone and use a different device.
Smartphones can be used to enhance our relationships!
There are several apps specifically designed for couples.
Couple is a free app available for both iPhone and android. It is similar to the Facebook app, except you each have just one friend. You can poke each other, share pictures, videos, texts and voice clips. It even has a feature called “thumb kiss” letting you touch thumbs in real time to get a “love vibration.”
Between is a similar app available for iPhone and android devices, but with the addition of a datebook and note sharing. The datebook is especially helpful for couples with busy lives because you can keep each other informed of your activities.
Icebreak for Couples is an app that couples can use to learn more about each other. It comes with activities they can share based on the answers to these questions.
Right now, my partner and I are using Between. We are loving it! The first thing we see when we open the app is our two pictures and the number of days we have known each other. For us, the calendar is crucial because we both have busy, fluctuating schedules in the medical field. I have the push notifications on, so I get alerts whenever she enters anything. We chat with each other using the app. We can send each other voice memos as well as texts.
If you find that you just can’t put your smartphone down, and are not able to adopt any of these strategies, then you need to examine the root cause of this behavior. You may need to see a therapist or psychiatrist to determine if you have an addiction, or if you have depression or anxiety that your are self medicating with your smartphone apps. You might need to take a good look at your relationship and your life. Behavior that is out of control should never be ignored, especially because help is available.