When she’s playing with her children, Sandra Kim’s phone is nowhere in sight.
For instance, she puts it upstairs before going downstairs to play with her children. Kim, a stay-at-home mother in Fairfax, Va., to three children between the ages of 3 and 8, knows that she’s no match for the allure of social media, text messages and phone calls. She also knows that whenever she peeks at her phone, her kids get upset.
“When we’re playing, I call my husband to tell him that I won’t be accessible for a few hours,” Kim said.
It’s a bold move at a time when cellphones are causing trouble in relationships. Anyone who has tried to have a conversation with someone only to notice that the other person is looking down at his or her phone knows the feeling, but recent studies are daunting and revealing: Relationships are no match for phones.
A study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture asked college couples how dependent they were on their smartphones and how difficult it would be for them to go without their phone for a day. Regardless of how much they used their phones, the level of dependency on them determined how confident these couples were about their relationships. Those who felt that their partners were too dependent on their devices said they weren’t as satisfied in their relationship as those who perceived their partners to be less dependent on them.
Another study by online security company AVG found that 54 percent of children thought their parents check their devices too often and 32 percent of kids feel unimportant when parents are distracted by their phones. A quarter of parents want to check their phones less often.
And while it sounds logical that if your phone bothers your family or your partner — and if you agree that you want to check your phone less frequently — the simple move would be to stop using your phone as often as you’re using it.
But it’s a very complicated issue, said Brandon McDaniel, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University who studied phones and relationships.
“It is often unrealistic to cut out phone use entirely, and it is also unrealistic to simply tell yourself that you will practice self-control and not check your phone,” McDaniel said. But, he said, “It can also begin to tear relationships apart if we are not careful.”
McDaniel found that it damaged relationships when partners allowed their devices to interrupt their face-to-face interactions, turned to others online instead of confiding in their partner or compared their relationship with those they saw on social media. In a 2014 study, he found that when technology devices frequently interrupted partners, couples had more conflict over technology use, lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms and lower life satisfaction.
But the phone doesn’t even have to be turned on to be disruptive.
A study by researchers at the University of Essex found that simply having a phone nearby while discussing an intimate topic made strangers report a lower relationship quality during the chat than the strangers who had the same talk without a cellphone in view.
“It would appear that it is one’s psychological attachment to the device that is really driving these negative relationships,” said Matthew Lapierre, assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, who studies this topic. “Relationship partners likely get frustrated by the distractions caused by smartphones, which leads to problems.”
As dependency on smartphones increases, relationship satisfaction decreases, Lapierre said.
The phone issues surrounding relationships need to be approached delicately, however, as not everyone has the same opinion about phone use and not everyone sees a problem, McDaniel said.
“If we can at least start from a common meaning that we love each other and want to connect, then we can set some ground rules for things that will help to keep us connected,” he said.
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