How Smartphones Affect Relationships
Have you frequented your favorite restaurant lately? If you have, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see couples sitting across from one another inundated with the images on their smartphone. Just a few tables over you’ll notice the same scenario for a family of four. Both the parents, as well as the children, are connected to their screens rather than one another. This mental picture is an example of how smartphones affect relationships today.
The “Need” for Connectivity
In my work as a Clinical Director at Shepherds Hill Academy, I see the impact that unlimited connectivity can have on individuals and the family system. Moreover, this massive need to connect with everyone is actually limiting our deeply relational nature as humans.
Research by Savci and Aysan (2017) found that “technological addictions adversely affect the quality of relationship of adolescents with their peers, friends, and family. This prevents the adolescent from seeing himself as a meaningful part of his relationships. Therefore, the level of social connectedness of adolescents with technological addictions decreases or the development of social connectedness is hampered” (p. 210). Unencumbered access is not only distracting, but it is actually harmful.
Smartphones in Residential Mental Health Care
I have had the privilege of working with teenagers who need residential care (like Shepherds Hill Academy). While the diagnoses that I address with the family are commonly mood disorders, anxiety, substance abuse, family discord, and oppositional behavior, there is almost always a component of screen addiction that I address.
As my clients get used to not having their devices, it’s amazing to see their interpersonal development and core values bloom. They begin to have deep introspection about what it means to be connected to others and how their smartphone was often a distraction from their issues. After seeing how smartphones affect relationships, many of the teenagers I work with know that they don’t want the unlimited access that a smartphone provides when they transition home and most of them make the decision to limit or even eliminate social media.
A Family’s Testimony on the Impact of Technology in Their Home
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.
John and Karen describe the dilemma they faced as parents when introducing a smartphone. “Our child was given an iPhone when she was eleven. Within one day, she was lying to us in order to spend time on her phone. Within one week, she was rarely without her phone and would become insolent when we would ‘interrupt’ her. With increased age came increased dishonesty: hiding apps, inappropriate photo-posting, cyberbullying, and one social failure after another” (personal communication, January 16, 2020). The family’s story is like many I hear. In truth, their daughter began down the dangerous road of smartphone addiction.
Susan, their daughter, reflected on her experience as a 17-year-old at Shepherds Hill and her year without her iPhone. “Being unplugged at Shepherd’s Hill for a year, I learned how to live with a capital L. I learned to enjoy moments rather than just document them. Life was less stressful and I found that I actually remembered things better. What I didn’t have was an overriding feeling that I had to constantly impress someone or be someone I’m not. Without a smartphone, I made real friendships and focused appropriately and realistically on them. When you have a smartphone, it becomes a constant leech on your hip. If you say something wrong or mess up on it, you feel like everyone will suck the joy right out of you. At Shepherd’s Hill, I got to experience true joy for the first time when I chose to unplug from my phone” (personal communication, January 16, 2020).
The Science of the Brain: Neurobiological Impact of Smartphones
The sense of well-being that she describes is actually a neurobiological change that occurred in her brain. Our knowledge about neural plasticity in the brain tells us that we can create new pathways. When we are addicted to smartphones, our brains emit the neurotransmitter dopamine causing a feedback loop for more and more. Interrupting this cycle, by having limited or restricted access to smartphones can create these new pathways. These changes take time and consistency, but can make a dramatic difference (as in Susan’s case).
The family made the decision to curtail a smartphone when Susan came home after 13 months in residential care. Instead, they provided her with a Gabb Phone™, which has limited features to help Susan stay focused on the therapeutic gains she gleaned from her time away from her phone.
“We needed to mitigate distraction so that her hard work was not thwarted. We also need to provide a communication device with voice calls and texting.” They have found a noticeable difference with these new boundaries and noted that, “She processes conversations quickly and responds appropriately. She also finds her self-esteem in things other than the ‘goings-on’ on her phone” (Parents, personal communication, January 16, 2020). Her parents had seen firsthand how smartphones affect relationships.
Incorporating Boundaries in the Home
Here are a few simple steps that parents can take to implement a smartphone plan in the home:
- Designate smartphone free zones (ex. Bedrooms, dinner table, etc.)
- Promote family smartphone-free time (ex. Family game nights, trips, etc.)
- Have a central location in the home for smartphone use
- Designate a time to turn off smartphones before bedtime
- Include your children in developing the plan and boundaries
- Don’t exclude yourselves (as parents) from the rules
I encourage every family that I work with to seriously think about the boundaries of smartphones and its impact on their kids. The reality is, we as adults also need to address these issues as our society continues to morph and change. Is your family taking steps to minimize the negative impact of smartphones in your home? The time to start planning and working together is now.
SOURCES: Savci, M., & Aysan, F. (2017). Technological Addictions and Social Connectedness: Predictor Effect of Internet Addiction, Social Media Addiction, Digital Game Addiction and Smartphone Addiction on Social Connectedness. Dusunen Adam: Journal of Psychiatry & Neurological Sciences, 30(3), 202-216.