“Hello?” My husband says to me, leaning into my view. He’s trying to get my attention but my head is buried in my smartphone.
“I just asked you a question,” he says. “Did you even hear me?”
I wish I had a better answer but the truth is, I don’t.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had a discussion about the effects of smart phones on our relationship. It’s a conversation on repeat, actually; one that changes direction constantly, depending on the circumstance. One day it’s him, exasperated with my obsessive tendency to get my Instagram shot just right. The next day it’s me, incensed that he would interrupt my life-altering anecdote about snow globes to peek down at the flashing light on his phone.
But no matter which way the conversation goes, it always has one fear in common. It always leaves both of us wondering: Are cell phones ruining our relationship?
I don’t think we’re the only ones.
I was at a dinner party recently where the social mix, and the conversation flow as a result, was slightly awkward. Not everyone knew each other, and personalities may not have been matched very well. So about thirty minutes in, all eight people at the “party” turned their attention to their smart phones. You know the drill. The only “conversation” happening was when, every now and then, one person would giggle and explain that so-and-so had just tweeted the cutest picture of kittens or a hilarious new GIF.
But it’s more than just a bad dinner party experience. Studies on the subject are not all too flattering of our phones. More than 80 percent of Americans use smart phones, but apparently they compromise our sleep, reduce our social awareness, and make us stupid.
In one study, strangers were asked to engage in casual conversation while facing each other in a booth. They were instructed to share something significant that had happened to them in the past month while facing each other in a booth. Each of the participants left his or her personal belongings behind when they arrived, but while the pairs chatted, half of them had a notebook in the background of their conversation. The other half had a cell phone.
As you might expect, the participants with the cell phone within reach reported “lower relationship quality and less closeness.”
If what this study shows is true, cell phones are in fact reducing the quality of our relationships—even when we aren’t engaging them. Just having a phone nearby serves as a damper on intimate conversation.
On the other hand, let’s be practical. If you’re like me, you’re part of the 66 percent of cell phone users who have a phobia of being without their device. And for all the negative effects of our phones, aren’t there are some benefits too? Don’t they help us stay connected—a key in strengthening relationships?
I may be speaking with a personal bias, of course, because I met my husband because of social technology. If it weren’t for Twitter, Facebook, Skpye, smart phones, the blogosphere and an ability to connect with people living outside my immediate network, I would never have met, or married, my guy.
That’s an improvement to relationships, right?
It’s certainly a benefit—phones help us stay connected to people we already know. If we don’t live in the same state as our family members, or our friends, or if we travel a lot, phones help us stay in touch—and this can be meaningful. A good luck text as you’re about to go into a job interview, an unexpected phone call from your mom, or a photo text from a friend saying, “Wish you were here!” are all the human ways we build and maintain relationships despite physical boundaries.
Finally, the content I encounter from my phone challenges me. I read articles by talented writers who bring new perspectives and I become more compassionate, more thoughtful and more integrated than I was before. I see pictures posted on Instagram or Pinterest that make me more inspired and creative. I read tweets from people I’ve never met that challenge my traditional thought process.
If my phone makes me a better person, it should make me better at relationships—shouldn’t it?
The problem, if you ask me, isn’t in our smart phones. The problem is with us. Because for as many times as my phone makes me a better person, it also makes me a more distracted person, or even a more selfish person. It distracts me from living in the moment. It makes me feel insecure and insignificant. It makes me worry obsessively that everyone is smarter, or prettier, or has a better life than I do.
Healthy individuals make healthy relationships, and while sometimes my phone guides me into better overall health, sometimes it doesn’t.
So what’s the answer?
As Christians, we tend to resist parts of culture we notice to have negative side effects. We see that something is “dangerous,” and quickly disengage from it to avoid the danger. We’ve done this with sexuality, with alcohol, with pop culture. But I don’t think this is the best answer. I don’t think we should all abandon our cell phones in search of a better life.
We should use our experiences—with all things—to become more like Christ.
We should cultivate the good, resist the junk and grow in wisdom to understand the difference between the two. We do this with many things and phones should be no different. If we use them to our advantage, they can be helpful and powerful tools. If we let them use us, we’ll be controlled and miserable.
I don’t anticipated throwing my phone into a dumpster any time soon, and chances are, neither do you. But I do want to pursue whole, healthy relationships. The key is discernment. There isn’t a blue print for this, folks. We have to use our common sense and hold our actions up to the question of whether or not we are loving God and others. Because at the end of the day, these relationships matter far more than my perfect Instagram shot.
Allison Vesterfelt is a writer, speaker, thinker, dreamer, and the author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living LIfe with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013). She travels often, but lives in Nashville, Tenn. with her husband, Darrell. You can follow her daily at her website or on Twitter.