Susan Heitler Ph.D. :
There's no doubt about it. Screens are here to stay. All of us have married the internet "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part."
For sure, mobile phones and the internet keep your faraway connections vastly closer. Email, group emails like whatsapp, and social media enable you to stay in touch with old friends and to stay abreast of happening with faraway relatives. The internet even lets you meet people you would not before have known. I feel connected for instance to blog readers who send me a personal note in response to something I've written on one of my posts. Suddenly, we "know" each other.
All that networking, connectivity, and access to information, shopping, games, sports-viewing and news can benefit us.
Have you become a bigamist? Bonded as much to your electronic devices as to your flesh and blood partner?
Just how is your marriage to your screens impacting your close relationships- and particularly your bonds with a partner whom you live with and love? If you are like most folks around the world, much of the time when you are on your computer or phone you are subtracting time from connecting with loved ones. Uh oh. Sounds like an affair!
James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David way back in 2006 were among the first researchers to ring this alarm. They published, in the journal Computers and Human Behavior, the first study of the impact of cell phone use in the presence of a loved one . Partner phubbing (Pphubbing) was this study's term for using a cell phone while in the company of a relationship partner. According to the study's findings, phubbing clearly puts both relationship satisfaction and personal well-being at risk.
Recent studies in the UK and reported on ABC have verified that even dogs get mad or depressed when their master is looking at a phone or a computer screen instead of interacting with them. If dogs react that way, how do you and your loved ones react when your eyes are focused on a screen instead of on each other?
I discussed the impacts of screens on their marriage recently with Rose and Basil, a couple with whom I have been working on marriage issues. Basil started the conversation by saying, "My relative who lives in far-away South Africa says she and her husband have been fighting about how much time she spends on her computer. Looks like the tensions Rose and I have had about screens is happening all over the globe."
Rose continued poignantly "Last night I felt a sudden shock of sadness. Instead of chatting with you Basil, sitting alongside you in our favorite armchairs, we were sitting back to back. Both of us were at our desks, facing our screens. That's not what I had in mind when I married you.
"At least last night we were sitting in the same room-so from time to time we could look up, twist our heads around to see each other, and share a thought or two.
"Still, before we had electronic gear, what were we doing in the evenings? Connecting with each other. Cooking and cleaning together in the kitchen. Sharing what each of us had been doing the day. You would read the newspapers and tell me about articles that had caught your attention. You were bugging me because I was trying to read my book but I still loved your wanting to share with me. Or we were watching TV together and talking about what we saw. Or my favorite-laughing or moaning together about something going on with the kids."
"Worst of all," Rose admitted, "I have a confession to make. Basil, when you were walking out of the living room last night, heading up the hallway and saying something about going to bed, I only half heard you. Not even half. Really, my brain was hyper- focused on my online shopping for a living room lamp.
"'Be up in a minute,' I said to you,. But by the time my "minute" was up ten minutes later, you were already sound asleep. I was too late to share the precious closing out moments of our day. Too late to connect like we used to-no chance to kiss each other good night, cuddle, mumble loving words to each other. Yikes.
Basil chimed in, "I have to admit that I've been part of the problem as well. Instead of reading the paper at night, now I put on earphones and listen to a podcast. If you say something to me, I can't hear it at all.
"And mornings are the worst. When you woke up this morning and turned to hug me hello, I was facing the other direction. My eyes were locked already on the phone I had grabbed from the table next to my side of the bed. I was stressing about the business emails that had arrived overnight.
My office has intruded into our bedroom, into our marital bed even. Hmmm. This is not good."
The downsides of screen time: When will we ever learn? When will we ever, learn?
Rose and Basil are fortunate. They at least can talk constructively about the problem. They verbalize their concerns. They humbly acknowledge their parts of the problem. They brainstorm together, each looking for ideas on what they themselves might do differently to rectify the situation.
Over time, with talking plus trial and error, Rose and Basil will create new routines that work for both of them, keeping their partnership strong.
They understand that problem-solving isn't about telling each other what you are doing that I don't like. It's about creating a new system for responding to the challenge.
Basil and Rose are determined to put the screens-genie back in the bottle. Maybe they will set up a basket on the table by their front door to collect their cell phones lest mobile devices continue to invade their family time
agree to when and where screens will be allowed entry
agree on no phones in bedrooms
agree on no phones at the kitchen or dining room table
limit computer time to just 8:00 to 8:30 in the evenings plus Saturday mornings, with the rest of their evenings and weekends reserved for non-electronic activities.
Alas, too many couples, unlike Basil and Rose, complain, criticize, and blame each other for screen invasions, arguing and finger-pointing instead of solving the problem. Does fighting about issues like screens wedge negative energy between you and your loved one, undermining your bonds of affection?
Problem-solving begins with clarification of the problem
Assess your current situation by answering the following quick set of questions.
Score your answers 1 (never), 1 (occasionally), 2 (often), or 3 (way too often).
At the end, add your scores together.
1. Do you or your partner bring your phone to the breakfast table in case you get a call?
2. If you do get a call, do you or your partner have an extended phone conversation?
3. Do you or your partner bring your phone to the dinner table in case you get a call?
4. If one of you does get a call, does that lead to an extended phone conversation during dinner?
5. Do you or your partner use a screen (phone or computer) after dinner?
6. Do you spend time on a screen, separate from your partner, on the weekends?
7. Do you or your partner find yourself looking at a screen when your spouse is heading for bed?
8. Do you or your partner look at or talk on a screen before the other wakes up in the morning?
9. Do you or your partner look at your phones when you are together in restaurants?
10.Do you ever feel irritated or resentful when your partner is on the phone at times when you would rather be connecting?
Notice first your total score. Hopefully it will be 10 or under.
Then check out any specific items where your score was 2 or higher. Better do something about those arenas. An ounce of prevention.
How can our society as a whole become more effective in halting the spread of the screen invasion?
Maybe what we need for starters is what the early leaders of the feminist movement used to call "consciousness raising." That's why I have written this blogpost, to increase public awareness about the dangers that screens are bringing to family togetherness.
I was delighted too to find out recently that the producers of ABC's 20/20 are concerned about this massive worldwide challenge to couple and family connections.
They've been in contact with me about the internet's impacts on love bonds. We've talked even about maybe doing a demo of the skills couples need to be able to talk about their screen time concerns without fighting. Feel welcome to email me via the link below if this is a project you might want to learn more about or even want to consider participating in.
Most importantly however, scores yourself on the 10 questions above to assess damage that screens may be playing in your home. Are you and your partner betraying each other by bonding too much with your phone and online activities? Pay attention!
(Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University).