‘Technoference’ in relationships

Credit: Mark A. Philbrick, BYU
Credit: Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

A little “ding” sound or a vibration noise from a cell phone may be more than just a notification, according to a recent study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture. New research shows that distractions from smartphones and other media devices are interfering with relationships and disrupting daily life.

“In recent years a lot of studies have been looking at ways at which media use might develop into problematic or addictive use for some individuals, and how that might negatively influence relationships,” said study lead Brandon T. McDaniel of the Pennsylvania State University. “We were really interested in thinking more broadly about the subject, expanding it to look at all everyday interruptions that might occur due to technology devices like a cell phone, smart phone, tablet, TV or computers.”

Looking at the “always on” environment couples live in today, there is always a chance, even if it is not intentional, that a person will get a notification, said Brother McDaniel, a Church member. Whether it is a game, Facebook message, a phone call or text message, disruptions are becoming commonplace.

Those everyday intrusions and interruptions are something researchers have termed “technoference” and researchers are starting to look at how those technology disruptions effect relationships.

In order to measure technoference, researchers looked at how often these interruptions occurred and whether they relate to personal and relational well-being.

The study included 143 women who are married or cohabiting and who completed an online questionnaire. Although the study focused on women, Brother McDaniel pointed out that they are only one part of the family unit, and more research suggests that the findings are similar for men.

“This is a family process that’s going on and happening in both directions,” he said. “It is often not intentional, but they are everyday interruptions that cause a divide.”

Among the questions participants were asked were questions about technology use during mealtime, how often a partner sends texts or emails to others during face-to-face conversations, how often a partner pulls out their mobile device after they hear a ring or beep even during a conversation, and about distractions from the TV or other media devices during leisure time.

“I was surprised at how frequent technoference is happening in relationships,” said co-author Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University.

Of participants, 74 percent said they think that cell phones detract “sometimes or more often” in their interactions with their spouse or partner and 62 percent said technology interferes “at least once a day or more often” with their free time together with their spouse or partner.

“We were measuring these everyday actions that were likely to occur through just normal use,” Brother McDaniel said. “And the majority of the participants perceive that technology interrupted their interactions with their partners, and most likely, those are non-intentional and they are very brief, but those who experience more of those interruptions seem to have more outcomes.”

The study states that overall, those who rated themselves as experiencing more technoference in their relationship also reported more frequent conflict over technology use, more depressive symptoms, lower life satisfaction and lower relationship satisfaction.

It is difficult to have meaningful conversation with, pay attention to and truly listen to one’s partner when daily interactions are intermittently interrupted by technology, the study states.

“It seems kind of like individuals are placing their technology above their partner, even if it is unintentional or only for a brief moment, it can possibly sow a little bit of conflict into the romantic relationship or make the partner feel a little less valued in that moment,” Brother McDaniel said. “They may not even realize they are doing it, but it can lead to some of those negative consequences and make them feel less satisfied.”

Researchers say there are things couples can do to prevent the negative consequences without removing technology completely from their lives.

First, individuals can stop and think about whether their personal daily technology use might be frustrating at times to their family members.

“If you catch yourself in an argument with your partner about technology use, then you know it is time for you to seriously assess the role technology may play in your life and relationships for both good and bad,” said Brother McDaniel.

The answer is not to ban technology in relationships; rather, couples should work out ways — mutually agreed upon — that they can use technology but not increase these feelings of conflict and satisfaction when they are together.

Second, couples should have open and honest dialogue.

“You need to be open and have honest conversation as you work together to find strategies that work for you,” said Sister Coyne, also a Church member. “When my husband and I are on a date, we are fully on the date. I put my phone on silent in my bag.”

Although exceptions may come — like needing to check in with a babysitter — make sure there is a legitimate explanation.

As couples talk about and set mutually agreed upon rules, they are able to work together to try to eliminate interruptions. A simple “no phone rule” for 15 minutes after the kids go to bed could help couples find a time to connect, technology free.

Third, as individuals are working through technoference in their lives, they must not get defensive when called out by their spouse. Sister Coyne said to look at it as a compliment, that someone is saying they would like to connect.

“If you don’t set any rules for yourself you will be aware of it, but won’t do anything about it,” said Brother McDaniel. @marianne_holman

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