Smart Phones and Relationships: Friend or Foe?

Smart Phones and Relationships: Friend or Foe?

Smart Phones and Relationships: Friend or Foe?

To be clear from the start, I have a smart phone and I’m not immune to its charms. It’s hard to imagine a world without smart phones now. They are aesthetically pleasing – beautiful to look at and hold. Some might say ‘sexy’. They are also personalised – we feel protective over our phone (not like the old days where one family had a phone to share, now every family member has their own phone). Suddenly it has become easy to do an online shop, link in with friends on social media, manage our finances and play games (amongst many other things). Who needs a separate camera now when camera phones are so good. These are arguably good things, right?

I’m concerned though. Mobile phones are quite addictive. Research shows we get a dopamine ‘hit’ when we pick them up. This means that the reward centre in our brain lights up, making it harder to resist using them more and more. The recent edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD 11) introduces the diagnosis of ‘gaming disorder’. This applies when individuals are engaging in ‘digital gaming’ or ‘video gaming’ to the exclusion of other daily activities and leading to impairment in relationships, education, work etc. Obviously mobile phones are not the only ways people engage in games, but they definitely increase their availability.

More than this though, what about the potential impact on relationships. Arguably they make it easier to keep in touch with people, however I wonder if relationships become more superficial through the medium of a mobile phone. People text rather than call. Text messages are easy to misinterpret. We know that only 7% of communication comes from words alone. (Actually this is a misunderstood and misused statistic.

More to come on this in a future blog). Text conversations are qualitatively different to talking on the phone or in person. Research shows that even face to face conversations with others are not as deep and not as close when there is a mobile phone in view. Not being used, just in sight! This is startling. Our brains are becoming wired to being aware of them even when we are engaged in other activities.

Relationships also exist increasingly through the lens of social media, where people choose to communicate with others in a controlled sometimes inauthentic way, for example, selecting only the most attractive parts of their lives to share with ‘friends’ on facebook or instagram, leaving others feeling dissatisfied about their own lives by comparison.

What about our most intimate relationships – those with our babies. Mothers (and fathers) today rely on their mobile phones continuously. I regularly observe parents holding their babies but looking at their phone. Babies who are learning about their world from this primary relationship and being met with a blank expression.

The importance of this is demonstrated in Tronick’s (1978) ‘Still Face’ experiment. In the first stage of the experiment a mother interacts normally with her four-month-old infant (who is in a chair). In the second phase the mother stops all interaction with the baby (both verbal and non-verbal) and wears a blank expression (the ‘still face’).

The infant finds this very distressing and increases his/her efforts to connect with the mother by smiling, reaching out and vocalising. This can go on for up to two minutes. The final stage is the reunion between mother and infant. If the reunion is delayed and the mother remains unresponsive, the infant appears to fall into a state of withdrawal, despair, despondency (which some say mimics signs of depression in adults).

Video of this paradigm can be viewed below:

Similar results have been found with older children up to 2 1/2 years old. Tronick argued that repeated experiences like this effect infants ability to learn about relationships and their own and others emotions.

Is it possible that parents using their mobile phones are inadvertently repeatedly presenting their infants with a still face, with negative developmental consequences? I wonder if older children are also met with the challenge of getting their parents attention when competing with a mobile phone. To be very clear, I don’t want to demonise parents who use their phones to increase their effectiveness and reduce their sense of loneliness and boredom. But perhaps the potential impact of phones should be more widely publicised?

So what can we do? We need to find ways of establishing boundaries around our relationship with our phones and focus on investing in our actual relationships with other people. Perhaps a good place to start is to calculate how much time you are spending on your phone by installing an app such as ‘the moment’ (I phone) or ‘the space’ (android)….yes I realise the irony of suggesting an app to reduce phone use! Maybe try to put your phone out of sight when communicating with someone in the room (including your baby).

Importantly, begin to notice the triggers for your phone use. Are you using it as a way of disconnecting from other (perhaps painful) emotions? Managing boredom? Loneliness? Pay increased attention to your emotional responses to your phone. How do you feel when scrolling mindlessly through face book posts? Choose to only use apps on your phone that make you feel good. Finally, never rely on social media for unbiased insights into others people’s lives. As a friend of mine wisely says, you cannot judge someone’s insides by their outsides.