Whenever I have the opportunity, I like talking walks by a lake. The tranquil setting – swans gliding along the water, frogs sitting still as statues half buried in mud, the calls of ducks and geese – is like mainlining serenity straight to my jugular. I observe nature, am reminded of the beauty surrounding me, and presto-changeo, I transform from stressed New Yorker to California Cool. As blogger Jamie Wallace pointed out in a recent post, the solitude is needed time just to chill out and think.
On a recent walk, however, my quest for inner Buddha was rudely interrupted by streams of tweens streaking past me, each and every one of them staring at their phones. Instead of enjoying the idyllic natural setting, their reality was augmented by overlaid cartoon monsters they relentlessly pursued. Yes, you guessed it, they were all playing Pokémon Go. Actual reality plays second fiddle to those virtual reality enthusiasts. And it wasn’t just the gamers who had no need for the actual world around them. I saw couples and small groups of friends standing around facing each other yet not saying a word because everyone was just staring at their phone. Surrounded by all those people, I’ve never felt more alone.
With that rather distasteful experience, it’s no wonder my attention was drawn to a recent article in Psychology Today about how smartphones are invading and sabotaging couple’s relationships. The device that has made communication so much easier in many ways has done the very opposite with personal interaction. It’s shut it down, interrupted it, overtaken it. Smartphones have degraded personal communication to the point where, according to the article, the lulls in everyday conversation – the ol’ comfortable silence – no longer lend themselves to opportunities to share personal reflections, or offer new topics of conversation, or simply grow closer as a couple while basking in the quiet. Instead those very lulls, once a pathway to openness, are now instantly shut down by one or more of the couple grabbing for their phone. The comfortable silence no longer exists.
Researcher Brandon McDaniel calls the omnipresent smartphone and what it does to relationships “technoference,” which according to him is the “everyday intrusions or interruptions in couple interactions or time spent together that occur due to technology.” The smartphone, it seems, has become as forceful an addiction as chocolate cake to a sugar addict or cocaine to a druggie. Merely having one’s phone in close proximity means attention is at least partly devoted to the compulsion to check it, taking focus away from the person you’re physically with. It’s the “instant charge,” according to a businesswoman quoted in the article, of discovering what people are talking about, tweeting about, posting about that’s nearly impossible to resist, much to the detriment of couple communication.
Part of the problem is that paying attention takes effort. You have to consciously devote your focus onto another person and away from yourself. You must be an active listener. And unlike technology, gratification for your troubles isn’t necessarily instantaneous. You may have to listen for awhile for someone to get around to the heart of whatever they want to talk about. Ay yi yi – the agony! You could have checked Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and read up on the latest headlines in the time it’s taking your partner to get to the point. People who absolutely cannot resist the urge to pick up the phone and begin checking sports scores or texting other people are addicts who can’t survive without a fix. Their drug of choice – technology – can irreparably damage or ruin their lives just as surely as a needle full of dope.
What to do? The article quotes psychology professor Katherine Hertlein of the University of Nevada as offering some tips. Included among them, have a discussion about how to handle technology in your lives once you get to the point where you’re serious about the relationship. Talk about things like whether or not you’ll share passwords with one another. Whether you feel like you must reveal to your SO whom your texting. When is technology off limits? (such as dinner time, for example). And how much checking on each other is OK?
There’s one piece of advice she gives that I find a bit curious. She states that if you’re having a fight or otherwise trying to solve a problem, it’s better to do it via email versus texting. I would agree with that – lots of room for interpretation over texting. But why not just, you know, actually talk?
A big piece of technoference, at least for some couples, is of course porn. But it can also be a good thing, as I’ll talk about next week. Stay tuned.