Is Your Smartphone Good or Bad for Your Relationship?

To text or not to text? In a world where two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, the answer is usually “to text,” to the point that 25% of couples who live together report texting each other from different rooms in the same house. But what effect do smartphones have on our relationships? Is it an automatic left swipe, or does every smartphone case have a silver lining?

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
July 15, 2016
Episode #117

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Smartphones are a contradiction: they infinitely expand our access to the world yet also cut us off from our immediate surroundings, as the number of viral videos of epic fails while walking with smartphone in hand can attest.

And if smartphones make us unable to avoid telephone poles and food court fountains, we might assume they’re wrecking our relationships as well. But, the real answer might surprise you. A 2014 survey on couples and the internet from Pew Research found that 20% of respondents gave a big thumbs down to the impact of the internet on their relationship. But a whopping 74% said the effect was positive.

What gives? Turns out it’s not smartphones themselves but how we use them that determines whether tech is bringing us together or leaving us each staring into our own internet vortex on opposite sides of the bed. With that in mind, here’s how to use the power of the smartphone to, per the Beatles, come together, because you really got a hold on me refers to each other, not our phones. With that, here are six ways we can work it out.

Tip #1: Bring eye contact back.  Let Justin bring back sexy and Meghan bring back booty. If you’ve ever watched your partner trail off mid-conversation to type and swipe, you know it’s aggravating at best, downright offensive at worst. And no matter how strong a multitasker we think we are, the moment our eyes shift to a screen, our partner probably feels ignored or invalidated.

Indeed, in a 2014 study, 89% of people reported that being ignored by friends or family in favor of technology had damaged their relationship. But just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s good.

So practice shifting your attention. When you’re talking to your partner (or anyone, for that matter), look them in the eye. Eye contact activates the entire network of our social brains from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, plus it holds attention, confers credibility, trust, and attraction, and even increases heart rate and skin reactivity.

But eye contact isn’t just compromised by staring into your phone. Researchers at Virginia Tech found that simply having a cell phone in the room, not even in your hand, makes people make less eye contact, attend less closely to one another’s facial expressions, and miss subtle communication cues.

So next time your partner talks, think of what your preschool teacher taught you about crossing the street: stop, look, and listen. Who knew your preschool teacher might also boost your relationship?         

Tip #2: Set screen time boundaries. When you’re together, be together. Consider designating certain activities, spaces, or times of day that are screen-free. Maybe all cell phones go in a bowl in the hallway during dinner, or Sunday evenings become a tech-free time for you and your partner to recharge together with no devices in sight. Or consider keeping the bedroom screen-free to prevent that deep dive into independent digital worlds.

For parents, while a 2016 study found that most parents support the suggested two hour per day screen time limit for their kids, very few actually role model the same at home. But to peel kids’ eyes away from screens, try to walk the walk, at least while the kids are around.


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