Dig­i­tal af­fair

How smart­phones are un­der­min­ing our re­la­tion­ships

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Front Page -

WHEN Ir­ish artist Rasher was seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion for his new ex­hi­bi­tion, he didn’t have to look too far.

En­ti­tled ‘Per­cep­tual Space’, the show re­flects on the fetishi­sa­tion of tech­nol­ogy, and per­haps the most ar­rest­ing piece, ‘Facetime’, de­picts a pro­fes­sional cou­ple seem­ingly more in love with their smart­phones than each other.

Real-life mod­els, he re­veals, were not in short sup­ply. “I’ve no­ticed peo­ple in restau­rants and they would be en­gaged more in their phone than each other,” he says.

“They’re hav­ing din­ner to­gether but they’re pre­oc­cu­pied watch­ing other peo­ple do­ing other things some­where else around the world.

“It kind of just trig­gered off the idea that the or­ganic re­la­tion­ship be­tween cou­ples is be­ing [eroded].”

Statis­tics show that life does in­deed im­i­tate art.

Ten years ago, in 2007, in­ter­net use — in­clud­ing smart­phones — was cited by just four per cent of the cou­ples who turned to Catholic mar­riage care ser­vice Ac­cord for help.

By 2015, that fig­ure had more than quadru­pled to 17%, while the most up-to­date data for the first six months of 2016 show it has jumped again to 19%, with con­stant so­cial net­work­ing and se­cre­tive tex­ting among the big­gest com­plaints.

“Many uses of phones and in­ter­net can be pos­i­tive, in­for­ma­tive and fun and, used ap­pro­pri­ately, pose no dif­fi­cul­ties to the re­la­tion­ship,” says Mary John­ston, Ac­cord spe­cial­ist in mar­riage and re­la­tion­ship coun­selling.

“Cou­ples can keep in reg­u­lar con­tact and check in with one an­other dur­ing the day or when they have to be away from each other for a length of time.

“How­ever, when they are not used in this man­ner, they can cause hurt, sus­pi­cion, mis­trust and lead to sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems be­tween cou­ples.

“When an in­di­vid­ual is very se­cre­tive with their phone it can re­sult in their part­ner be­com­ing wor­ried that some­thing is go­ing on that is be­ing kept from them,” she says, “and this can af­fect trust.

“The is­sue of con­stant, even in­ces­sant, use of the phone can also be a prob­lem when an in­di­vid­ual is fre­quently check­ing mes­sages and us­ing the phone for in­ter­net ac­cess and use of so­cial net­work­ing sites.

“A part­ner in such a sit­u­a­tion can feel very much ig­nored, unim­por­tant and dis­re­spected and this can lead to dis­tance or con­flict in a re­la­tion­ship.”

State­side, the phe­nom­e­non has even been given a nick­name, ‘phub­bing’, or part­ner phone snub­bing, with one study by Bay­lor Univer­sity in Texas find­ing that more than 46% of those in re­la­tion­ships had been ‘phubbed’ by a part­ner.

It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence that rings a bell with make-up artist Sinead (33) from Dublin, who broke up with her part­ner of five years ear­lier this year.

“My ex-boyfriend was big into his gad­gets, while I use so­cial me­dia a lot for work,” she di­vulged.

“For the most part, I would say [tech­nol­ogy] brought us closer to­gether as we al­ways stayed in touch by text or What­sapp dur­ing the day.

“Af­ter a while though, scrolling through Face­book just made it eas­ier for us to ig­nore each other, and the prob­lems in the re­la­tion­ship. By the time we were go­ing to bed with our backs to each other on our phones, I think we both knew it was over.”

As chief match­maker at A Ta­ble for Six, which sees six sin­gle­tons meet up for din­ner, it’s a balancing act Mairéad Lough­man knows all about. “In­creas­ingly, our clients are say­ing that they do not want to meet some­one who texts them con­stantly, all day long in be­tween dates,” she says.

“They would rather talk to them once or twice through­out the day rather than over and back through hun­dreds of texts.

“On a group date like A Ta­ble for Six peo­ple can be a lit­tle ner­vous so they use their phone as a so­cial crutch. We ad­vise all of our daters not just to turn off the sound, but to turn off their phone com­pletely and put it out of sight.

“You will get more out of the date and the evening if you are lis­ten­ing to what is go­ing on around you and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the evening.”

For the six in 10 Ir­ish who re­port­edly suf­fer from ‘nomo­pho­bia’, the crip­pling fear of be­ing with­out one’s mo­bile phone, that may be eas­ier said than done.

Al­though it’s not yet clas­si­fied as an ad­dic­tion by US psy­chi­a­try bi­ble, the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders

(DSM-5), an ad­dic­tion expert here tells Feelgood it’s only a mat­ter of time as the round-the-clock in­ter­net ac­cess of­fered by smart­phones con­tin­ues to fuel other com­pul­sions such as gam­bling and pornog­ra­phy.

“Smart­phone ‘mis­use’ is the word I use at the mo­ment be­cause it hasn’t been clas­si­fied as an ad­dic­tion,” says Sean Harty, chair­per­son of Ad­dic­tion Coun­sel­lors of Ire­land, which has more than 600 qual­i­fied ad­dic­tion coun­sel­lors through­out the coun­try.

“But I have ab­so­lutely no doubt that it is an ad­dic­tion and that it will be­come an ad­dic­tion in the DSM-5.

“I would be in con­tact with mem­bers through­out the year and there is an in­creas­ing amount of peo­ple pre­sent­ing for treat­ment for their mis­use or their over­re­liance [on] so­cial me­dia.

“The smart­phone is just a de­vice — it’s the con­tent of the smart­phone that’s the prob­lem. I know many peo­ple who are tap­ping in and tap­ping out ev­ery few sec­onds.

“There can be with­drawals — not ob­vi­ous with­drawals like you’d have from al­co­hol or drugs where some­one would be shak­ing — but anx­i­ety, fear, iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness be­cause they have be­come so re­liant on the de­vice as their means to com­mu­ni­cate rather than com­mu­ni­cate face-to-face.

“With any ad­dic­tion — let it be al­co­hol, drugs, gam­bling — there’s al­ways a fine line,” he con­tin­ues. “If it’s caus­ing neg­a­tive con­se­quences to your life — to your re­la­tion­ship with your bet­ter half or your re­la­tion­ship with fam­ily and friends — it stands out [as an is­sue].

“Any in­di­vid­ual will know them­selves that they are over-re­liant on so­cial me­dia — that they need to pull back.”

Even when it’s not buzzing or beep­ing, a 2014 study on ‘The iPhone Ef­fect’ led by Shalini Misra, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Tech, re­vealed how the mere pres­ence of a smart­phone can ruin a real-life deep and mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ship by low­er­ing em­pa­thy lev­els.

Whether it’s a part­ner or just a pal, un­plug­ging could be the key to re­con­nect­ing, says Ac­cord’s Mary John­ston.

“Fre­quent hon­est and healthy com­mu­ni­ca­tion is es­sen­tial to keep a mar­riage and re­la­tion­ship thriv­ing,” she says.

“Cou­ples need to make time to give at­ten­tion to one an­other, talk to one an­other, en­joy each other’s com­pany and the com­pany of their chil­dren if they are par­ents.

“With­out good com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a re­la­tion­ship is un­likely to thrive. With good com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a re­la­tion­ship is likely to thrive and be [in] a place where dif­fi­cul­ties can be worked through with­out dam­ag­ing the re­la­tion­ship.”

In an age of non-stop swip­ing, it’s ad­vice that hun­dreds of Ir­ish cou­ples have ap­par­ently al­ready started to heed.

Based in Done­gal town, Har­vey’s Point is just one of the ho­tels here now of­fer­ing a ‘dig­i­tal detox’ pack­age, with the gad­get-free get­away prov­ing pop­u­lar with techno-stressed part­ners.

“We started our Dig­i­tal Detox breaks last Jan­uary in re­sponse to guest feed­back,” says hote­lier Deirdre McGlone. “Guests reg­u­larly men­tioned how re­lax­ing a visit to our ho­tel was, so we thought the ex­pe­ri­ence would be greatly en­hanced if there were no dig­i­tal dis­trac­tions.

“When guests ar­rive, they have the op­tion of hand­ing in their mo­bile phone, but it’s en­tirely up to them. Cur­rently, we have two [dig­i­tal detoxes] a year, al­though due to de­mand, we hope to in­crease this to four.

“Iron­i­cally, many of our guests heard about the breaks on so­cial me­dia. But we have no­ticed that it’s not only the young pro­fes­sion­als or mil­len­ni­als who book, it’s re­cently re­tired cou­ples as well.”

Af­ter re­searchers at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity found that get­ting a ‘like’ on Face­book trig­gers the same chem­i­cal in the brain as co­caine, how­ever, could it be time for some cou­ples — doped up on this “dig­i­tal dopamine” — to go cold turkey al­to­gether?

Al­though he doesn’t quite go that far, ad­dic­tion spe­cial­ist Sean Harty as­serts that smart­phones call for “smart use”, urg­ing a re­turn to old-fash­ioned “meet and greet”-type in­ter­per­sonal skills.

“We would call it the harm re­duc­tion method,” he ex­plains. “It’s where you lit­er­ally pass con­trol over to the client to set their own bound­aries.

“I would ask them what amount of time they would feel safe with us­ing so­cial me­dia per day. If they’re at six hours, I don’t ex­pect them to go to one hour — you have to be re­al­is­tic.

“You try to get them to use their smart­phone safely — [to] limit the time and limit the use. In ex­treme cir­cum­stances, some clients have asked to re­turn to the old­fash­ioned phone where you text only.”

He also sug­gests stick­ing to a so­cial me­dia timetable and ban­ning your smart­phone from the bed­room.

Back at his Wick­low stu­dio, ‘Facetime’ painter Rasher has his own sim­ple so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of ‘tech­nofer­ence’.

“If they’re go­ing out to din­ner, peo­ple need to ini­ti­ate who­ever picks up their phone first is pay­ing for the meal,” sug­gested the dad-ofthree, whose real name is Mark Ka­vanagh. “If there’s a cou­ple go­ing out, leave one of the phones at home. You only need one phone to ring a taxi

“With the paint­ings, when peo­ple see them, it’s kind of mak­ing them look at their own lives and go, ‘I didn’t re­ally re­alise I’m do­ing that’.

“Look, I’m on no higher moral thresh­old here be­cause I’ve done it and I’ve seen my wife do­ing it,” adds the artist, who’s been mar­ried to wife Gillian for 10 years. “We’re not en­joy­ing the mo­ment — we’re pre­oc­cu­pied with shar­ing the mo­ment with every­one else.”

“We are not en­joy­ing the mo­ment be­cause we are pre­oc­cu­pied with shar­ing the mo­ment with every­one else

CON­STANT COM­PAN­ION: In his paint­ing, Per­pet­ual Space, artist Rasher de­picts a cou­ple hav­ing din­ner to­gether but pre­oc­cu­pied by their smart­phones.

Mairéad Lough­man: Daters ad­vised to turn off their phones.

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