Next time you’re in a lineup or at a coffee shop, look around. What are other people doing? Chances are they’re staring down at a handheld computer of some type, be it a smartphone or tablet. Perhaps they’re even typing furiously on a laptop. Digital devices are ubiquitous.

It’s handy to be able to look up the hours of a store, directions to your destination, or even read a novel on a vacation (without the actual weight of War and Peace interfering with your carry-on allowance). However, with increased access to technology and the almost constant ability to remain connected, are primary relationships being harmed? And is it possible to become addicted to digital devices?

Addiction is best characterized as any behaviour performed consistently and chronically, leading to a disruption in usual routines and dysfunctional behaviour. Some examples would include going out for coffee with friends who keep their face buried in their phone or going on vacation and being unable to stop checking emails or responding to texts, even when the purpose of the trip is to disconnect.

Do you find yourself getting edgy or feeling anxious about not having your smartphone when waiting in a line? Are you unable to sustain concentration on a task, instead surfing social media every five minutes or searching for kitten memes?

Researchers have coined the term “technoference” to refer to the everyday intrusions or interruptions of technology on time spent with another person, whether or not that person is a romantic partner. Various research studies indicate negative results on interpersonal relationships because of technology.

In one example, researchers found even just having a phone on the table during a conversation can adversely affect the quality of the interaction. The amount of interpersonal closeness and trust participants felt toward their partner was diminished, as well as feeling a decreased sense of empathy and understanding from their partner. People who actively text during a conversation are considered less polite and attentive, and the quality of the conversation itself was rated lower (regardless of whether the relationship is new or established).

Some of my former professors used to insist that phones be turned off prior to class in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of students texting during the lecture. Other professors went so far as to refuse the use of laptops in order to cut down on social media surfing and bolster learning opportunities, based on studies which show that learning and memory are increased when writing information as opposed to typing it. So in addition to decreasing the quality of interpersonal interactions, staring constantly at a digital device might actually interfere with maintaining levels of executive functioning.

The time has come to consider the impact constantly checking emails, Facebook, and other social media have on our levels of interaction. My partner and I struggle to put down our phones or tablets during meals—there’s always one more interesting article, one more funny meme—but if we don’t, we miss out on connecting while sharing physical space. We miss out on creating our own moments, rather than vicariously participating in those of others.

Try a small experiment: the next time you’re waiting (in line, for an appointment, whatever), don’t reach for your phone. Instead, spend the time looking around or thinking whatever thoughts come into your head. At home or during your next social engagement, leave your phone out of sight. Take the time to fully participate in whatever you’re doing.

If you think you have an addiction to digital devices, please contact a mental health professional for help.

Please note technology and tech devices can provide significant support to people who are neurodivergent (e.g., on the autism spectrum, with ADHD, and/or suffering from mental illness). Such support devices are as important as mobility aides and should be considered in that context.

Feature image: Technoference is the term used to describe how technology interferes with time spent with others. | Pixabay