How Our Digital Devices Are Affecting Our Personal Relationships

The first report in a weekly series

BOSTON — On a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Powers home in Orleans, author William Powers, his wife Martha Sherrill and 15-year-old son William are quietly observing the Sabbath. It’s not a religious Sabbath; they call it their Internet Sabbath. From Friday night through Sunday evening, there are no video games, no computers and no smartphones.

Powers says it was very difficult at first. “It almost had an existential feeling of, ‘I don’t know who I am with the Internet gone.’ But after a few months it hardened into a habit and we all began to realize we were gaining a lot from it.”

In our “always on” lives, there are many like Powers who worry we are too immersed in the digital world and not present enough in the real world. Observers such as digital guru Baratunde Thurston say we can’t seem to resist the lure of our smartphones, even when we are in the company of others. They are like a little Christmas present, Thurston says, “a gift where someone is telling you that you are the most important person.”

So we check our screens frequently (some say compulsively) — even when we are sitting across from someone else. And that has consequences, according to one recent study, which found the mere presence of cellphones in face-to-face conversations inhibits the development of closeness and trust, and reduces the amount of empathy we feel from our partners.

The Powers family, of Orleans, has embraced an Internet Sabbath -- from Friday night through Sunday evening -- to get away from their digital lives. (Iris Adler/WBUR)

The Powers family, of Orleans, has embraced an Internet Sabbath — from Friday night through Sunday evening — to get away from their digital lives. (Iris Adler/WBUR)

The study reinforces the thinking of some prominent skeptics, chief among them MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle. She applauds the many benefits of digital technology, but she says we still have a lot to learn about how to use it without undermining our values.

“We are not meant to get rid of this,” Turkle says. “We are meant to use it for our human purposes, but we first have to figure out what our human purposes are and I am pretty sure they are not sitting at the dinner table not talking to our 8-year-olds.”

We’ve all heard plenty of complaints about how these technologies interfere with family life, but Turkle says in her 15 years interviewing hundreds of adults and teens, it’s surprising how often it is young people who complain about their parents’ obsession with these devices.

“They complain about parents picking them up at school and not making eye contact with them until they finish the last email,” she says. And she says parents attending sporting events often miss their child’s important play because they have been checking their email.

Turkle adds that many young people feel they have to compete for their parents’ attention. “Adolescent men complain about how they used to love watching Sunday sports with their dads, and now dads are on their iPhones or laptops and they are completely sucked into the Internet space.”

The kids are plenty distracted as well. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study (PDF), young people ages 8 to 18 now spend nearly every waking moment when they are not in school using media — more than 7.5 hours a day.

And half of all Americans say they prefer to communicate digitally than talk in person, according to a Time Inc. study.

Thurston says that for many, even phone conversations are too much of a burden. “When I see my phone ring I actually get annoyed,” he says. “Like, ‘Why would you interrupt me?’ Unless you are hurt or you are dying, you can text me.”

Texts — their brevity, their simplicity, their utility — have tremendous appeal. According to a Pew Research Center survey, teens now text 100 times a day.

Boston University senior Ciera Wade says she can’t remember the last time she had a phone conversation with her parents. “It has entirely been text messages,” Wade says. “In a text message, no one can hear your voice, so if I say ‘I am great,’ you believe it, but I might be crying as I am typing ‘I am great.’ So texting allows me to mask.”

Wade also admits that she gets nervous when she has to make the leap from texting to an actual phone conversation. MIT’s Turkle has found that many young people, so reliant on texts and tweets, are intimidated by in-person conversation. She worries that as we ramp up our digital communication, we are “dumbing down” our conversations.

Digital communication, Turkle says, “is not so good for the sort of nuanced understanding and relationship-building you get when you are present with your friends — for sharing intimacies, for sharing difficult news, for saying you are sorry, for really getting to know someone. It gives us that sense of connection without the demands of intimacy and the responsibilities of intimacy.”

Nancy Baym, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, doesn’t share these concerns. She says research suggests that digital communications enhance relationships and that “the evidence consistently shows that the more you communicate with people using devices, the more likely you are to communicate with those people face to face.” She says every new technology raises the fear that we will lose or lessen our human connections, but that we eventually figure out how to adapt.

Others believe that digital devices present more of a challenge, that they are more alluring, more irresistible and perhaps more addictive than previous technologies. The psychiatric world is still debating whether so-called “Internet addiction” qualifies as a true disease, similar to other addiction disorders. The new version of the DSM, the psychiatric diagnostic manual, will reportedly list “Internet-use disorder” as a condition “recommended for further study” when it comes out this spring.

But Baym says she has seen no compelling evidence that this technology is more addictive.

“I am not buying that this has some special power to control our behavior in a way that offers a new threat that history has never before seen,” she says.

Whether or not this technology presents a unique challenge, few would disagree that the lure is strong, and many are now beginning to conclude that it is time to seek a greater balance between our plugged-in and unplugged lives. For instance, we’re seeing the advent of digital detox retreats, device-free bar nights and tech-free cold spots.

And even industry leaders are striking a cautionary note. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told this year’s graduating class at Boston University to get offline, at least one hour a day.

Life, he told them, is not lived in the glow of a monitor. “It’s not about your friend count. It’s about the friends you count on.”

Meanwhile, at the Internet Sabbath at the Powers home in Orleans, Powers says his family has found a balance between the wonder and burden of digital technology.

And 14-year-old William says after six years, he has come to appreciate his weekends offline with his family.

“I think that if we were on the Internet we’d be talking about Internet stuff, and now we talk about real life,” he says. “I haven’t missed anything and I have really gained a lot.”

Although an Internet Sabbath may be too ambitious for many who are rarely more than an arm’s length away from their smartphones or laptops, experts, even tech enthusiasts, say it is useful to take some time away from the pings and beeps and chimes to evaluate our and our families’ changing relationship with technology.

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  • Diane

    I stopped using a smartphone when I stopped working in July with the intention of taking the summer off to enjoy myself in my local surroundings before working again. Well…it’s almost six months, not being plugged in 24/7 has completely changed my mental state for the positive. I must start using one for business soon but plan on shutting it off after business hours and on wknds. I don’t have TV in my bdrm and have recently started scheduling my home computer time for working and limited search, shopping and socializing with distant sources. I find it offensive when friends visit and keep their devices in their hand, jumping at it’s every prompt that someone is contacting them. Glad to be unplugged

    • http://www.facebook.com/bidover Benjamin Dover III

      ever been on a first date, and the person is texting throughout the whole date? that’s so damn annoying!!!

  • Renee Upton

    I am so sick of someone glued to a cell phone. If someone is walking down the street completely engrossed in their cell phone conversation or texting, and not paying attention to what is going on around them, I just keep going and bang into them. Its not my fault if the person is so engrossed in a device that they’re not paying attention. They get mad, but hey if they’re so inconsiderate of people around them then its their problem.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bidover Benjamin Dover III

      lmao, although I agree, I wouldn’t do that around ghetto people. They don’t know how to restrain themselves. they’re go off on impulse.

  • Renee Upton

    I get so annoyed with people totally engrossed in their conversations/texts that they completely ignore people around them. If they’re not paying attention to where they’re going cause they’re on a cell phone, I keep going and don’t move out of their way. Yes, they get mad, but its not my fault, its theirs.

  • http://twitter.com/42ThinkDeep Michael Milton

    Neat piece! I’ve been guilty of “not being in the moment” and instead engrossed on my device. I’ve recently begun to consciously stop this when I am with my friends and family. I wrote a pledge last week about curbing cell phone use of others by being more interesting! http://michaelkmilton.com/2013/01/12/the-be-more-interesting-pledge/

  • Clint Cavanaugh

    I’ve never felt compelled to be at the beck and call of either my phone or my computer, nor do I need the validation that many seem to get from being “in demand.” Most weekends and evenings, my phone stays in my purse and there’s usually one day a week that I forget to bring it to work with me. And I will admit, that when I go out without it, I get just the tiniest rush of worry that I might “need” my phone. But, I always survive–it’s even kind of liberating!

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the things we can do with our smartphones! The technology is intrguing and it is much like getting a present each time I pick it up. No one could deny that it’s great to have around when you need to look something up or get directions, but is it necessary? We’d likely all get through the night if we had to live with the fact that no one could remember the name of the river that runs through Rome or the year that Sally Field embarrassed herself at the Emmy’s. And much as I love to show them, no one goes home disappointed because they didn’t get to see the latest cute pictures of my dog and my cat wrestling.

    In the end, I find the obsession with these devices to be a little pitiful, a little amusing and a little annoying. You don’t need to txt me “There in a sec,” if you’re right around the corner! You sure don’t need to answer your phone to say, “I’m busy, can I call you back?” Voicemail conveys that message just fine. And you don’t need to get up from a dinner party to take a call from your child–unless they call repeatedly and you’re worried something’s wrong. What maybe surprises me most is what Sherry Turkle found; that it’s people who didn’t grow up with this technology who are often the most roped in by it.
    I think that we need to learn to use technology, instead of letting technology–and those who have become zillionaires from producing it–use us. Put the thing down, look up and smile at the next person you walk by. Having them smile back is so much more satisfying than :)

  • guyigu

    u guys are just 50 year olds that dont want thier kid to pay attention to electronics and more attention to you

    • http://www.facebook.com/bidover Benjamin Dover III

      wow, are you really that stupid?

  • Mandy

    Smartphone addicts have become a menace at movies, plays and concerts. Nothing ruins your concentration in a darkened theater like the sharp blast of bright light in your face from somebody’s phone. I’ve noticed that theater managers are stepping up their pre-show announcements but even they say privately that they feel powerless against these inconsiderate audience members. Worst of all are the twits who tweet not just once but repeatedly throughout the movie. What can we do to make this totally unacceptable behavior?

  • David

    I am a teenager and I love my technology. I would love to hang out with my friends in person but since my parents work out of town until I can drive i can’t do so. So my friends and I use Skype to talk to eachother and hang out. One of my frieds I would never have met if I hadent first met him in person but I would not have been able to keep in contact with him without Skype. That is why I belive that tech doesnt only hurt social interaction.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bidover Benjamin Dover III

      Oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are people who go on first dates and the other person’s steadily texting or tweeting and checking their email or whatever. That is very inconsiderate considering you’re on a first date. Talk about making a bad first impression.

  • madcitybah

    A principal researcher at Microsoft doesn’t see a problem? Shocking!

  • Alan Campbell

    Nancy Bahm at Microsoft makes some good points, but I have to wonder about her bias being a classic case of not seeing the danger or downside of a product or service when it is directly tied to one’s own financial security…. as in her job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bidover Benjamin Dover III

      basically, she’s invested in this technology. It’s pretty obvious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bidover Benjamin Dover III

    Got rid of my smartphone. Only dumbasses use them, paying over $100 for shit they’re barely going to use throughout it’s lifetime. I don’t need to check my email while walking to work or plain walking. I can do it when I get home.

  • Cheri Shanti

    I am so grateful to hear someone else sharing this story… Love your work William! My first book, “Muse Power: How Music Making Heals the Symptoms of Modern Culture” touches on this, and I am now focusing my thesis on this topic of the conflict and issues between modernity and the human system/culture. I will definitely be following your work closely and sharing it with others. I feel this is one of the most important issues of our time and one to be seriously considering for a healthier future.

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