What your smartphone is doing to your relationships

Few things in life can bring us as much joy in life as having fulfilling and close relationships with those who matter most to us – our families. Feeling connected to, being loved and supported by those whom we love has been called akin to experiencing heaven on earth. Maintaining family relationships is not only an integral part of our Deen, it is also a key to having a positive experience in this world. While essential for worldly and ultimate happiness, maintaining a strong family is less than easy in modern society. 

Families everywhere are feeling the stress of conflicting needs and schedules of dual working parents, the shortage of time and the pressures of living in an environment that often contradicts the values they try to nurture at home. Ours is also the first generation to experience the reality of mobile technologies that are always switched on. 

The Internet has expanded our horizons like never before and opened up a world of possibilities in education and communication. These benefits have come at a cost though, the extent of which is not yet fully understood. Although research on the impact of constant connectivity to technology is only just emerging, our families are already reeling from its impact. 

In many households today, family time consists of everyone being occupied by a smart phone, tablet or laptop. Where the family sits in the evening is determined by where the wifi signal is the strongest. Even though the entire family may be sharing the same physical space, each person is lost in their own private world. Things that have always been shared family activities, such as watching TV or the news, or listening to a lecture, are now individual activities. In the past, the family would gather around, watch TV and then get on with ‘normal life’. Today, it is ‘normal’ that the TV, Internet, entertainment, emails, work and non-work contacts follow us around wherever we go. 

Mobile technology is so seductive because it meets so many of our needs for work, play, education, entertainment, communication and socializing. Why would we ever want to switch off? 

One reason to consider switching off is because it is becoming increasingly clear that this constant connectivity has come at a great cost to relationships. Shirley Turkle points out in her seminal book, Alone Together, that technology has made it possible for people to connect to each other on their own terms and in amounts that they can control. Texting and instant messaging appears easier because you can control when, where and how much to reveal. You can also edit and re-edit your messages, carefully crafting what you want to say and how you want to respond. It is often easier to have difficult conversations via text because you do not have to witness the reactions of the recipient of the message unless they tell you in an emoticon. The result is that people today are less likely to want to connect in real time because relationships in real life are ‘messy’, raw and unedited, in other words, human. Turkle’s and other research has found that it is precisely because it is so easy (although one-dimensional) that makes communicating through technology a barrier to forming relationships in real life. 

When we use technology to mediate our relationships, we become “alone together”, that is, sharing the same space, yet not really connected to each other. Moreover, when we are communicating to others than whom we are with, we are giving our loved ones the clear signal that we aren’t really there for them, that whom we are ‘talking to’ is more important than whom we are with. 

Reflecting on our own relationship with technology is challenging. It is so much easier to point the finger at ‘youth these days’ and lament how the ‘Net Generation” cannot set boundaries for themselves or manage technology in an appropriate way. It is more uncomfortable, although also more effective, to take stock of our own relationship with technology before can begin to guide our children. 

So let us consider how our relationship with our devices is impacting our other relationships. 

Parents are distracted from each other 

It is well established, both in theory and research, that the strongest link in a family system is the parents’ relationship with each other. Mothers and fathers set the emotional tone of the family by how they relate to each other and to their children. 

Growing up in a household where parents express their love and support for each other provides a safe foundation for children to grow up in. It also teaches them that that it is possible to have a great long-term partnership and the skills that it takes to maintain such a partnership. 

Investing in our marriages by paying attention to our spouses is one of the most effective ways that we can support our children’s success and happiness. A happy marriage is, of course, also highly correlated with our own mental emotional and physical wellbeing. 

Meaningful communication on a daily basis is how a married couple keeps emotionally connected to each other, and this keeps the marriage strong. Dr John Gottman, a respected marriage expert, believes that in emotionally connected relationships, spouses frequently make small bids for attention from each other throughout the day. These are tiny gestures that are easy to miss if one is not paying attention. For example, a person looking out of the window and commenting on the fall colours is a bid for connection. In a strong marriage, the couples respond to each other’s bids for attention by ‘turning toward’ their partner. This simply means that they respond in a neutral or kind way to the comment. Simply saying, ‘yes, they are nice, aren’t they’ or even nodding and saying ‘yeah’ would qualify as turning towards. In unhealthy relationships, the partners either miss the other’s bid for attention or they respond in an unkind manner. It is normal for even happy couples to miss some bids, but a couple that is frequently distracted by technology is likely to miss many, if not most, of these bids for attention. Dr Gottman’s research has shown that these tiny hurts of not being responded to add up over time and lead to emotional distance in the relationship. 

Moreover, if a couple does not communicate with each other because each person is constantly looking down at his or her phone, children will start to normalize this behaviour. As a result, children may turn to devices for support and comfort rather than to parents or friends. According to current research, one of the contributing factors of depression and loneliness in youth today is a result of missed human interaction. 

Parents are distracted from children 

We know that young children can get themselves into trouble and danger very quickly. We just have to turn our gaze for a minute and they appear to run towards danger. These days our gaze is turned a lot. Even when we are close by, our attention is on our phones, and this is putting our children at physical risk. The Centre for Disease Control confirms that distracted parenting has led to an increase in everyday childhood injuries, such as playground accidents. 

With the advent of mobile technology, it has become increasingly common for parents to multitask while they are with their children. A mom or dad pushing a stroller with one hand while checking his or her email with the other hand is an all-too-common sight today. For parents, it can be challenging to be with a young child all day while yearning for adult company and conversation. It is easy to empathize with parents wanting to escape what appears to be daily drudgery. However, when we begin to recognize the impact of our attention on children’s cognitive and emotional development, we may be more motivated to switch off the phone and turn our full attention to our children. 

The benefits of positive and consistent attention to our children cannot be overstated. Our attention is vital to a child’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Research on attachment in children shows that even very young children know when their parents respond to them. When a baby cries and a mother responds by turning her attention towards the child in an attempt to soothe the child, she is not only following her God-given instinct. She is establishing a strong basis of comfort, trust and security within the child. Children feel safe if they are able to bond with parents through physical touch and eye contact. This basis of trust is a strong foundation from which to view the world and it will contribute to his or her emotional wellbeing throughout life. 

On the other hand, when the parent’s attention is fragmented, it can have a long term impact on children’s wellbeing. When children sense that their parents are digitally distracted or emotionally unavailable, they may feel less familiarity, comfort, trust, security, and, most importantly, love from their parents. Without this basis of trust and security, it is challenging to build a healthy relationship with our children. As they grow older, they are less likely to turn to their parents for support and guidance. It also makes it much less likely that they are able to form other healthy relationships. 

Connect before guiding 

It is not only young children who need our emotional presence and attention. As children get older, they encounter moral and emotional challenges. While incidents such as fighting with a friend may appear trivial to adults, to a child or an adolescent, how these events are dealt with and processed can be life-changing. While children can ‘Google’ almost everything these days, it is our response to seemingly minor daily events that can help build a relationship where they will come to us rather than go to Google for life’s big questions. 

I am not suggesting that parents spend every waking moment focused on their children. Allowing children space to entertain themselves, deal with the minor frustrations of everyday living, and solve problems for themselves is vital for their sense of efficacy. The difference between this kind of “benign neglect” and distraction from technology is that benign neglect is intentional, while not being able to tear ourselves away from our devices is unwilling and unconscious. 

Switching off and paying attention to our spouses and children is challenging in the short term. In the long term, however, it will bring us a lot more fulfilment than the fleeting enjoyment from that funny YouTube video or WhatsApp message. 

We all have those ‘magic moments’ of parenting and family life that make it all worthwhile. The joy of connecting and really ‘seeing’ another human being is unparalleled in human experience. These magic moments, as we know, do not occur on a schedule. Instead they appear, almost randomly, in daily routines when we are present and emotionally available for each other. 

So how can we take small steps to turn from being digitally distracted to emotionally available for our family? 

  1. Assess how much time you actually spend on your devices. Many parents greatly underestimate the time that they are plugged in. All those tiny moments of checking the phone add up.
  2. Establish sacred, unplugged time and space when family is around. Commit to being available to family with your full presence at certain times and places in the home. Dinner time and bedtime are great places to start.
  3. Have a family meeting about your concerns regarding technology and family time. This works best if you are honest about your own challenges with managing technology. Brainstorm with the family to come up with a plan to manage technology within the home.

There is no doubt that the digital revolution is here to stay. We cannot ignore it or shun it. We can become aware of how it is impacting our families and learn to practice ways to develop a healthier relationship with technology that is not at the expense of our other relationships, but makes room for the relationships that matter most. 


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