Dr. Peggy Drexler
October 19, 2013 9:00 am

Seth and Patrice had a rule, common these days among families: No cellphone-checking at the dinner table. The idea, of course, was to fill the hour with uninterrupted conversation about what had happened that day, movies they wanted to see, or their plans for the weekend. And for an hour, it worked: They talked.

But as soon as dinner was over, each rushed to their respective phones to see what they’d missed, either professionally or socially. It wasn’t as if either was expecting anything of great import; the action was simply a reflex, and what you did when you had been “away” for any extended period of time. Their phones were in-hand during much of the rest of the non-work-day as well: If they watched television or cooked dinner together, one or both would check their phones while doing something else. Patrice called reading the news while stirring pasta sauce “multitasking.” When Seth checked the scores while they were watching a movie, he claimed it was a concession to forgoing the game. “I agreed to do what you wanted to do,” he’d say, referring to the rom-com in place of the Knicks, but Patrice would wonder if really he had. After all, was he spending time watching a movie with her? Or was he somewhere else?

Though cellphones have helped boost interpersonal connections by allowing people to stay in touch constantly, they also present a threat to those same connections. It’s the rare instance in which you can look around a crowded room and not see at least a few, if not more, people curled over their phones, checking the latest scores, playing Candy Crush, or browsing through other people’s Instagram photos. Meanwhile, their companion is sitting there right beside them, most often doing the very same thing. This is why many couples and families like Seth and Patrice increasingly agree to go “unplugged,” at least during certain times of the day or occasions. But is that enough?

We know that phones are extremely capable and alluring as social and entertainment tools, and as such can take away from the situation in front of you, whether you’re driving in your car or having drinks with your best friend. A 2011 study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project confirmed this. But studies also show that the distracting effect of cellphones doesn’t go away when you’re not engaging with it, or just because the phone’s not actively buzzing or beeping on the table beside you.

A recent set of studies published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that simply having a phone nearby, without even checking it, could have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality—and that because the options for connections are now so vast, people are forgetting the connections right there in front of them. Research from the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business found that cellphone use might even be linked to more selfish behavior. Meanwhile, a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that the more often we neglect to exercise the capacity to connect, the greater our chance of losing the ability entirely.

When Aurora and Lisa were first married, they avoided shouting to each other from opposite ends of their house by texting instead: What time should we eat? Are you almost ready to go? It seemed an easy, convenient, effective solution to the frustration often caused by trying to yell over and over again. Later, when they had children, they found themselves avoiding confrontation or having parenting-related discussions in front of the kids by texting one another. “We’d literally text each other from across the kitchen,” Lisa told me. “It’s your turn to insist Harry do his chores,’ or ‘I strongly disagree with the fact you just told Jenna she could play video games before doing her homework.’ All in shorthand of course.” Occasionally, they’d readdress the situation later in person, but those conversations were mostly short, and conducted at a time of night when both were tired. And so, Aurora told me, “Some of our most important parenting decisions were made over text. It was our most effective means of communication.”

While it may be a lot to ask for couples to quit their phones cold turkey, cutting back considerably is a worthwhile goal. Tuning in to other people is a skill worth having, after all; so is being able to talk to others without the use of a phone. The JSPR study found that interacting with other people without a cellphone nearby fostered closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy—and these are, of course, the essential building blocks of relationships. The ones worth having, anyway.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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