When Henry Ford came out with the Model T in 1908, it eventually changed life as that generation knew it. When television became mainstream in the 1950s, the American world was forever altered. When the internet became a household standard in the late 90s-early 00s, everything about the way we do things changed—but when the first iPhone was released in 2007, it was more than just a game changer. Sure it changed the way we talk (we don’t, we text), the way we walk (with our eyes on our phones), the way we have dinner (with our phones laid out on the table)—but it did more than that, it completely changed our relationships. Nearly 10% of Americans have some form of internet addiction (Cash et al 2012) and this has many negative implications for forming and maintaining a happy relationship.
Over half of people cannot go an hour without checking their phone (Harris Research 2012). That’s rather problematic for going to a movie, going out to dinner, engaging in a long conversation—essentially, doing anything that lasts any length of time—with your partner, is it not? There are also larger implications of smartphone addiction, according to a 2012 Pew Internet study, which suggests that this addiction can lead to shorter attention spans, poorer communication skills, greater need for instant gratification, and loss of patience. All of these things affect the way we conduct relationships. With a shorter and shorter attention span, how can we listen to our partners? With poorer communication skills, how can we say what we mean? If we need instant gratification, can we see a long-term relationship through? A study by Konrath et al in 2011 finds that the rising generation is the least empathic yet—and there surely is a technological tie in there as well.
But in terms of how technology is specifically affecting relationships, a study by Przybylski & Weinstein in 2012 revealed that when one partner pulled out their phone or had their phone out during conversation, the other partner deemed them less trustworthy, and as the lesson in module two discusses, high levels of trust are essential to moving from an exchange to a communal relationship. When the phones were out, the other partners were also less likely to engage in important conversation, closeness levels decreased, and perhaps most interestingly, perceived empathy levels went down. Empathy is very important to relationships and altruistic behavior, as discussed in module five. Phone use also leaves partners feeling alone and unimportant, which can as Harris Research revealed in their Mobile Mindset study in 2012.
In fact, people flat out say it—a Pew Research study in 2014 found that 25% of couples reported that their partner was often distracted by their phone/social media while they were spending time together, and 20% of couples reported that technology has had a significantly negative impact on their relationship. This could be due to feeling unimportant since the person is choosing to use their phone over pay attention to their partner, lacking trust because the partner does not know who the person is talking to or what they are doing on their device, or feeling alone, since the partner is not actually engaging with them. This is even more true for people ages 18-29, where 42% of people reported that their significant other was often distracted by their phone in some way, a number likely to rise since younger generations are more phone-dependent. A study by Robert Clayton in 2014 showed that there was a significant relationship between active Twitter usage and negative relationship outcomes (break ups, divorce), likely because of these reported feelings and related findings.
Social media usage can also lead to troubling relationship behavior, a long-term study by Farrugia in 2013 suggests. In this study, active to highly active Facebook use had a positive correlation with surveillance behavior and jealousy, and a negative correlation with relationship satisfaction and individualized trust. Surveillance behavior is extremely unhealthy and jealousy also hinders the relationship. As module two explains, satisfaction levels in long-term relationships already decline over time, so adding something else that decreases relationship satisfaction and reduces trust levels can only have a negative effect. Trust is also necessary to move from an exchange-based relationship to a communal relationship, which is an important step that any long term relationship takes.
That said, it does not have to be this way. Smartphones and the technology that makes them work are incredible inventions that help a lot of people and have benefitted the world in many ways. One of the main problems right now is that these devices are still relatively new, they have really only been in the world less than a decade and when you consider how new things like Facebook and social networking and related applications really are, it makes sense that people have not quite yet figured out how to reign them in and master them to make them work for us instead of us developing addictive behaviors towards them. In time, once multiple generations have been using this technology for many years, they will likely have taught their children to manage their usage much better than we have taught ours.
Anderson, J.Q., & Rainie, L (2012). Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/02/29/main-findings-teens-technology-and-human-potential-in-2020/ on February 27, 2015.
Cash, H., Rae, C. D., Steel, A. H., & Winkler, A. (2012). Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8(4), 292–298. Retrieved February 25, 2015.
Clayton, R.B. (2014). The third wheel: the impact of Twitter use on relationship infidelity and divorce. Cyberpsychology, Social Media, and Networking, 4(2), 121-123. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
Farrugia, R.C. (2013). Facebook and Relationships: A Study of How Social Media Use is Affecting Long-Term Relationships. Rochester Institute of Technology. Retrieved February 25, 2015.
Harris Interactive Research (2012). Mobile Mindset Study. Lookout. Retrieved February 27, 2015.
Lenhart, A. & Duggan, M. (2014). Couples, the Internet, and Social Media. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/20/couples-the-internet-and-social-media-2/ on February 26, 2015.
Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237-246.