Opinion

Smartphones hurt relationships and your health

Cynthia M. Allen
Cynthia M. Allen

Here’s something a little counterintuitive that might get you thinking: Technology, for all its many virtues, may be ruining your life.

And its weapon of choice is that one device you can’t live without: your cellphone.

The more obvious dangers of excessive smartphone use, like texting while driving, are not the only collateral damage caused by our obsession with the tiny glowing screens. According to a study just released by Baylor University, cellphones are a drain on our relationships. And they are having harmful effects on individual emotional health, too.

Researchers at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business who studied the relational effects of “phubbing” – or “partner phone snubbing” – found that distractions caused by cellphone use while spending time with a partner may lead to “enhanced feelings of depression and lower well-being” by the individual being phubbed.

None of this is surprising.

Think of how often you enter a coffee shop or a restaurant and see two people (sometimes more) at a table, looking not at each another, but at their respective phones.

It’s a common occurrence.

So it’s not difficult to imagine people developing complexes over feeling they are less interesting to their partners than email, Facebook or Twitter – to all of which we enjoy perpetual, unfettered access thanks to the wonders of technology.

Indeed, results of one survey used in the Baylor study found that nearly half (46.3 percent) of respondents were phubbed by their partner, and nearly a quarter (22.6 percent) of those who were phubbed said it caused conflict in their relationships.

Apparently that conflict was serious enough in some cases to cause emotional damage; more than a third (36.6 percent) of respondents said they felt depressed at least some of the time. That depression, researchers assert, is probably an outgrowth of the insecurity caused by the frequency with which one’s partner checks his or her phone.

Most people can probably relate to that sentiment.

Emotional distress isn’t the only potential consequence of being forced to play second string to a digital device. A series of studies by two researchers at the University of Essex found the very presence of a phone during an encounter, even if it is not in use, can be detrimental to an individual’s attempts at interpersonal connection.

The result is less closeness, empathy and trust between individuals.

The irony, of course, is that our efforts to stay connected at all times, to reach new people in remote places and improve human contact, may be having the opposite effect. We are becoming less connected, physically and emotionally, to the actual people – not Twitter followers or Facebook “friends” – who occupy important places in our lives.

Even if we were to ignore the emotional harm to relationships that the aforementioned studies correlate with excessive smartphone use, the notion that individuals are increasingly choosing to interact with others in the virtual world instead of the physical one should give us pause.

Robert Putnam warned us about this phenomenon, writing in his 2000 book “Bowling Alone” about how vibrant civic institutions – which help produce better schools, faster economic development, lower crime and more effective government – are on the wane.

One of the culprits (there are several) is the growth of technological forms of entertainment that have come to replace in-person social activities.

More than a decade later, as the Baylor and University of Essex studies show, this cultural epidemic is eroding society at its most fundamental level. Our personal relationships and our own mental health are at stake.

While many people feel tied to their screens for professional reasons (which is another problem entirely), many others are choosing to spend their leisure time with technology. But a rousing Twitter debate isn’t likely to bring the kind of long-term satisfaction a conversation with a partner or a discussion with a book group can produce.

If it does, as a society, we may be beyond saving.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Email her at cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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