“What’s the big deal? It’s just a phone”, I once said. My husband and I like to joke about my lackluster reaction to the highly anticipated release of a popular smart phone many years ago. Little did I know that over the course of a few years, I would become dependent on this gadget to reach people instantaneously through text, email, social media, or video chat, reroute me out of traffic jams, take and organize pictures and videos, listen to music, coordinate family members’ schedules and serve as my backup memory. And we all now know that’s not all!
While this little gadget makes life more convenient in so many ways, I can’t help but feel dismayed as I watch a group of young people walking the boardwalk with not a single one looking at or talking to each other, each in a near permanent position looking down at their phones; or noticing a family out at a restaurant, each of them engaged in their own device only inches away from each other. Not many of us are immune it seems, and certainly not I when I find myself half engaged in a conversation with my husband or child because something on that little screen has captured my attention. This device that helps me stay “connected” in so many ways, is also a significant source of distraction and disconnection.
Relationship issues such as (mis)trust, (mis)communication, and intimacy (or lack thereof) are typical themes that come up in therapy and phone use/abuse/addiction inevitably plays some part these days. While cell phones allow people to “stay connected” when apart, checking in and updating on whereabouts or events of the day, they also provide an effective means of avoidance and secrecy in relationships. Earlier in my career when a couple or family members said they “talked” to each other about something important, difficult, or emotional, the often correct assumption was that they actually talked: personally, with their voices, allowing for the impact of tone, intensity, and visible or audible emotional impact. I can no longer assume spoken conversations, as it’s just as common now for people to share with me text exchanges and social media posts that they’ve exchanged about the same types of important, sensitive conversations. Emotional reactions, accusations and important relationship decisions now frequently come via a colored text bubble, maybe with emoticons or CAPS or lots of punctuation!?!? If you’ve read comments on social media at all, you are familiar with how “brutally honest” people can be when communicating with their fingers or thumbs, how easy it seems to be for some to type things they would never say to someone. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all seen misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and the overall limitations of communicating intimately in this way.
Fortunately, in therapy, I am in the unique position to help people be fully present- not only with me but anyone in the room with them, meaning they are looking, listening, paying attention to each other and themselves, and sharing themselves in order to stay connected with one another.
What we know about human development and our emotional needs has not been changed by technology. Humans, from the time we are born, are hardwired to seek connection & attachment. We can all do it: unplug a bit to connect more with those we love.