Always turned on: the negative impact technology has on relationships

Is turning on to technology making us switch off in our relationships, asks Sharon Ní Chonchúir.

Always turned on: the negative impact technology has on relationships

AMAL Alamuddin steps out of a downtown New York Hotel on a bright spring day. With a power handbag dangling from one hand, she holds a smart phone in the other, ready to respond to the next text, email or call. With work as a human rights lawyer taking her around the world, the multi-tasking phone is no doubt a vital way of staying in touch with the office and her fiancé — globetrotting actor and human rights activist George Clooney.

A palm-sized piece of technology now allows us to be always on, always connected. But what happens when a loved-up couple sets up home together? Will they be content to switch off their phones and laptops and simply enjoy each other’s company?

Technology has become an integral part of our lives with more and more of us emailing, texting, tweeting and Facebooking. A recent survey by Facebook found the first thing 80% of us do in the mornings is check our phones. The average user then goes on to check their device 110 times a day.

This must mean that we are more connected to each other than ever but what exactly does it mean for romantic relationships? Are we giving our partners the time and attention they need? Or are we spending more time than we should in our own worlds with our always-on technology?

Research conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International on a sample of 2,252 Americans last year indicates cause for worry: 25% felt their partner was distracted by their phone when they were together and 8% had argued as a result.

The figures were worse for younger people: 42% of 18-to-29-year-olds said their partners had been distracted by their phones and 18% had argued over the amount of time the other was spending online.

A study by researchers at the University of Essex is even more telling. Their experiment involved two people discussing an important matter. In some cases, a mobile phone was placed nearby and in others, a pocket notebook. All who had a discussion with a phone in the vicinity felt it impacted negatively on the conversation. The mere presence of a phone meant the person they were talking to might be distracted and caused the conversation to feel less intimate.

The last Irish census showed 1.3m households out of a total of 1.6m had a computer and 1.05m had access to broadband. This is a big leap from 828,356 households with computers and 292,110 households with broadband in 2006.

Our use of technology is only going to increase, according to Krishna De, a digital communications strategist. “Research commissioned by the International Association of Business Communicators in June last year indicated that 54% of Irish people own smartphones. That’s up from 32% in 2012,” she says. “30% own tablets, up from 9%. With the likes of Google Glass, smartwatches and other wearable technology on the horizon, it’s clear technology is going to have even more impact on our lives.”

Some of this will be positive. In the Princeton survey, 41% of 18-to-29-year-olds reported feeling closer to their partners because of online or text message conversations. Many of us remember the days of expensive landline calls and few would prefer them to the cheaper and more convenient Skype. Digital tools can facilitate communication but used in the wrong ways, they can cause quarrels too.

Psychotherapist Lisa O’Hara has seen this in her work. “The internet is compulsive,” she says. “It can have a stronger draw than the person sitting beside you. You can be in the same room as a person and yet you’re not really there; 30% to 40% of my clients cite the internet and the use of phones and tablets as a negative issue in their relationships.”

Cork-based counselling psychologist Sally O’Reilly has seen evidence of this too.

“Some couples see technology as an unwanted third person in the relationship,” she says. “If one partner is constantly on Facebook, this might be interpreted as a preference for Facebook friends over the real-life relationship. If our partner is beside us feeling ignored, we have a problem.”

However, she thinks it’s a mistake to blame technology for this. “I urge caution before we lay the blame for faltering relationships at the digital feet of Twitter,” she says. “What I find is that when problems arise in a relationship around communication or lack of attention or affection, these issues usually predate the introduction of technology into the relationship. Technology aids, rather than causes, the deterioration of relationships.”

Tony Moore, a psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland, takes a different view. He believes technology has a destructive value all of its own.

“Viewing your phone or tablet is a solitary exercise,” he says. “We get into a relationship to be with another person for lots of different reasons. We then spend a huge amount of time chatting to friends online. We can view and masturbate to pornography without the knowledge of our partner. So we don’t really need them as much. Technology can and is destroying our idea of what a relationship is for.”

He has also seen how technology can cause couples to feel suspicious of each other.

“Most people have separate email and social media accounts but both males and females hack into their partner’s accounts to see who they are talking to or to check if they are having an affair. Some people feel that if they are in a relationship, they have carte blanche to access all of their partner’s private correspondence.

“There’s a major issue with trust there.”

Checking emails or surfing the web in the bedroom can impact on couples’ sex lives. “There are many layers preventing intimacy and this is another layer that wasn’t there ten years ago,” says O’Hara. “Today’s couples are busy and tired and there are all sorts of reasons for them not to have sex. Having a phone or tablet by the bed is yet another barrier getting in the way.”

O’Reilly agrees. “Time given to technology is sometimes time taken from a partner,” she says. “That is experienced as rejection and if it isn’t discussed, all aspects of the relationship, including the couples’ sex life, will suffer. My advice is to make the bedroom a technology-free zone. Bedrooms are for sleep and pillow talk and love-making — in any order.”

What is it about online technology that exerts such control over us? How does it distract us from our real world lives?

The Facebook survey found that people felt connected, excited, curious and productive while using technology. But it’s more pervasive than that.

Google is there to answer our questions. There are games to play when we’re bored. We can do our shopping and banking online. We can watch TV and videos and listen to the radio. We can share our opinions with others on social networks. And we can stay in contact with family and friends.

Tony Moore thinks the allure of the internet has to do with anonymity. “It removes us from a direct physical involvement with others,” he says. “It’s easier to interact online and as a result, we’re becoming less skilled at communicating in person.”

Sally O’Reilly believes that the online world is particularly attractive to introverts.

“For them, it’s a welcome relief,” she says. “They can be witty, entertaining and knowledgeable without immediate personal feedback and so it feels less risky to communicate in this way. We can even edit what we say before we say it.”

Even those who promote modern technology such as Krishna De have also seen some negatives. ” I’ve seen it when I’m out socially,” she says. “I look around and see many people, including kids, who have their eyes down looking at their devices instead of looking at and talking to each other. We need to ask ourselves if the use of portable devices is detracting from real conversations and if we are spending too much time online.”

What we all need to remember is that real world relationships are absolutely vital to our mental health. “We are social animals,” says Moore. “We need company to keep feelgood hormones flowing in our brains. I always tell clients we are like children. Children need to be hugged and kissed and so do we. When great things happen, it is priceless to have someone come up, congratulate you and smile at you. When you’re sad, you need someone to cry with you.

“When I last looked, my computer didn’t have arms to wrap around me and make me feel less lonely.”

Are you listening, the future Mr and Mrs Clooney? Or are you too busy with your phones?

How to put real into relationship

Technology has evolved so quickly that most of us haven’t had time to establish ground rules.

So, how can you make sure technology doesn’t take priority over personal relationships? Try the following tips to keep your relationship real, rather than virtual.

1. Everyone must feel respected, heard and loved.

For this to happen, time needs to be set aside for Facebook, Twitter and other online activities. “There must also be a time to log out of virtual reality and into the real relationship,” says counselling psychologist Sally O’Reilly. “You may need an explicit agreement about when attention is given to online activities and when it is not.”

2. Do this as a team.

“If you have found it frustrating that your friends or family turn to their portable devices when they are with you, raise it in conversation and discuss an approach that will work for you all,” says communications strategist Krishna De. “If you co-create your approach, then you are all more likely to respond positively, rather than creating a ‘rule’.”

3. Make specific times phone free.

Many couples agree not to have phones in the bedroom, at the dinner table, or during meal times.

4. Make sure the phone or portable device is put away during these times.

“People can feel anxious and as though they are missing out if they can hear or see their phones,” says psychotherapist Tony Ryan. “Make a deliberate decision to turn the phone off, put it away, and have a tech-free hour or two.”

5. Brain scans have shown that dopamine — the pleasure neurotransmitter — is released every time we hear our phone beep. This means we can become addicted to using our phones to a certain extent and it can be tough to break the habit. You may need to put in place something to reinforce the change in behaviour until it becomes second nature.

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