Instead, your phone buzzes and you look down: It’s a push alert from Facebook. You’ve just been tagged in a “relationship” with ... your dinner date.
Is this an over-the-top scenario, or do we too often find ourselves managing a relationship on a phone rather than enjoying the actual relationship?
How phones affect relationships and what our dependence on mobile technology reveals about us moved somewhat beyond casual talk and academic studies when gadget service Gazelle surveyed 1,000 customers and found that 15 percent would rather give up sex than go a weekend without an iPhone. Less alarmingly (although it’s questionable how alarming a 1,000-person customer survey could be), 25 percent said they “almost always” use their iPhone in social settings.
The bad touch
If you think individuals’ relationships with their phones is superficial, think again.
Apple sales employees are trained to ask permission before touching a customer’s iPhone, according to a report in The New York Times. The implication of the training is clear: The phone is to be treated like a customer’s appendage.
“People view them as an extension of not only their physical selves, but their psychological selves,” said Professor James Katz, chair of the Department of Communication at Rutgers University. Katz also directs Rutger’s Center for Mobile Communication Studies.
“When things happen to the cell phone it’s almost visceral,” continued Katz. “It’s almost happening to them.”
And this relationship goes through a “life cycle,” he says. When we’re young, our connection to our cell phones gains in strength, reaching a height during our teenage years when, says Katz, the relationship is “quite intense.” In college that relationship “starts to ratchet down.” We ramp back up again in our 40s, as we begin to cope with growing families and the need for greater coordination.
“As the technology has evolved and changed to fit the needs of individuals, it really becomes a new platform for what humans have always done,” said Dr. Gian Gonzaga, Senior Director of Research & Development for online dating service eHarmony.com.
But that expansion into our lives produces, like anything, both positive and negative results.
The positive: “The technology gives us an opportunity to expand our natural inclinations in ways that give us immediate pleasure and change our social relationships and even change our physical health,” says Katz. Teenage boys, rather than suffer through a phone call with a changing voice, can merely ask someone out via text, which, according to Katz, “really fits in that sweet spot between the voice and handwriting.”
The dark side: “It can lead to a lot of obsessive compulsive behavior, in some cases even to stalking and harassment. And this is partly because of the combination of the social power of the communication, plus the ease of the technology.”
A three-way relationship
But, when it comes to mobile technology, it doesn’t mold our lives as much as we tend to mold it, says eHarmony’s Gonzaga. And that molding has meant changes to fundamental relationship dynamics, from dating to marriage to parenting.
On a date, “you put your phone away. It’s two hours. You can remove yourself for two hours,” says Match.com Relationship Insider Whitney Casey. She makes an exception for dating parents, but says they should set a specific ringtone for a call from the babysitter or the kids.
She recommends both parties on a date take out their phones and stack them on the table. The first person to reach for a phone buys the drinks.
In marriage, the opportunities for mobile devices to become the third entity in a relationship are almost endless.
“Married people are constantly carping on about how they do not like people on their phones,” says Match.com’s Casey. “Now that you have the man or woman you want, you’ve just completely checked out.”
Casey advises couples to get into a conversation about the best and worst of what happened that day. “That always just gets you into a great place.”
In parenting, “I have seen so many soccer moms and working moms arranging things for their kids to make their kids have a better life, yet their kids are sitting right there with them,” says Casey, “paying attention to your kids is going to give them a better life.“
She also recommends carving out e-mail time early in the morning when your kids are still sleeping and when your hormone levels are highest — a practice Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned in her provocative Atlantic cover story on women’s continuing struggle for work-life balance. Try to stay away from checking e-mails right before dinner or late at night because that interrupts quality time with your family and spouse respectively.
“Being present is so challenging for people, and it’s so disappointing,” continued Casey, “you’re missing the essence of your husband, the essence of your wife and the little moments with your children.”
Let’s talk about sex
Getting back to that Gazelle survey, Gonzaga has a question for those who would give up sex before going a weekend without an iPhone: “Who’s in your life that you’re having sex with?”
That’s assuming there is anyone special, considering, as Casey points out, “you can get sex from your iPhone.”
But the way the survey is structured goes a long way towards the nature of the responses. “When you ask it more specific to the actual human aspect of it,” continued Casey, “it makes it far more of a stretch to say that you would ever give you phone up for that.”
“We all say we cannot live without our phones,” says Casey, “until we do.”
So, will we hit a tipping point and turn off our phones entirely, realizing we’re missing out on something more essential — something more human?
Don’t bet on it, says Katz.
“I don’t foresee people deciding we’re going to give up our communicating devices en masse. And I think those people who continue to call for media-free weekends will continue to be wolves howling at the moon.”
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