The iPhone has been around for just over a decade, and it’s hard to remember life without it. Many studies have been conducted to determine exactly how much time people are spending on their smartphones, but it is hard to nail down, maybe because the time varies so much between different populations that any one number can be misleading. But the general consensus is that it totals over 4 hours a day on average, and for some it’s much more.
This is probably no surprise to you if you have a smartphone (and roughly three-fourths of Americans do, including approximately 90% of adults 18-49). We use our phones for everything: email, texting, researching facts, interacting with social media, watching videos from short clips to full-length movies, making purchases, playing games, and sometimes even talking. It doesn’t seem right to call it a phone. It is a “handheld computer/television/connector-to-all-people/portal-to-all-information,” but that name is a little lengthy I guess.
Whatever you call it, there is no doubt that this little device has changed the world and our interactions with it. I could fill this entire paper with all the ways how, but as my focus tends towards personal behavior and relationships, I’ll start with that.
I have worked with couples who experience and perpetrate domestic violence for over ten years, and I have watched phones play an increasingly larger role in unhealthy relationships as time has gone on. So many incidents start with “She was looking through my phone…” or “I saw a message pop up on his phone…” or “Somebody sent me a screenshot of a conversation….” Phones are thrown, broken, and taken. Apps made to find phones are used instead to track people.
One of the main phone-related sources of relationship issues is also one of our favorite smartphone tools: texting.
In recent studies, communications company Twilio found that text messaging is three to eight times more preferred than face-to-face communication across all generations, Gallup identified texting as the most frequently used form of communication by Americans under 50, Forbes learned that texting is the #1 preferred communication channel by Millennials, and Common Sense Media found that texting is the #1 means of communications for teens.
Texting is easy and convenient and fun. As a relatively introverted person who likes to express myself with well-thought-out sentences rather than off-the-cuff, I love texting.
But texting can have a real downside as a communication tool, especially when sent impulsively. Texts come as words without the cues that usually clarify meaning, like body language, facial expressions, and verbal tone. They can be misunderstood. They can be misused. And they can be permanent–visible, concrete records of conversations that can be recorded, saved, and shared by either side.
People read their partner’s text messages when they are asleep or in the shower or somehow otherwise separated from their phones. They get angry when their partners don’t answer a text immediately, forgetting that just because someone has a phone doesn’t mean it is always a good time to use it. They worry that a personal text may pop up and be seen by their partner, that it may be misinterpreted, that a “hello” from the opposite sex may start a fight.
Ironically, while couples may cite their phone as the core of their problems, they may also consider it the path to the solution. “When we fight, I’ll leave the house, but then I’ll just text her,” they’ll say, or, “I’ll text and text until he replies.” Or more often, something like “I tried to send a funny text to lighten the mood, but it backfired,” or “I didn’t like what he said, so I just blocked him.” But bad communication is not solved with more bad communication.
Before smartphones, we didn’t expect to know our partner’s every thought or action. We didn’t know where they were at every moment. We just had to trust each other, and respect each person’s right to some privacy. We had to talk about our issues in person. Smartphones may provide alternative ways to communicate, but the foundation of healthy relationships is still trust and respect. People in healthy relationships don’t snoop through each other’s phones just because they can.
Next time you are tempted to text, consider using your message instead to schedule some face-to-face time where you can share feelings as well as words.
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.