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Sugar House Journal

Less technology means better family connections says USU researcher

Jan 15, 2020 12h52 ● By Jenniffer Wardell

According to a new survey, taking phones to bed can have a detrimental impact on a marriage. (Photo courtesy of Utah State University)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution that will help your family, try putting down your phone. 

That’s a suggestion from David Schramm, Utah State University assistant professor and Extension family life specialist. Schramm has recently completed a nationwide survey asking parents how they felt about the effect of technology use on face-to-face interaction between family members. He said it’s that interaction that strengthens both spousal and parent-child relationships.

Among the 631 parents surveyed, a full 62% said that the interference of technology was a big problem in their family. 

“It comes down to communication and connection,” said Schramm, also known as the USU relationship specialist “Dr. Dave.” “Cellphones get in the way of face-to-face conversation, and I wanted to get an idea of how prevalent it was.” 

In the survey, he used the term “technoference” to describe the way technology use interfered in face-to-face interaction with others. He also focused on two specific areas of family interaction — the dinner table and the parent’s bedroom. 

“I consider those two places where real communication and connection can happen,” he said. “I’m not anti-technology, but I think it’s starting to crowd out those areas.” 

Plenty of Americans feel the same way. According to the survey, 70% reported that technology interrupts family time at least occasionally. More than one-third of the adults said they used technology in their bed every night or almost every night. Forty-three percent reported that their spouse/partner uses technology in bed every night or almost every night.

As an extension of that, nearly 25% said they felt like their partner’s use of technology in bed interferes with their sexual relationship. Forty-five percent considered technology a big problem in their marriage. Fifty-five percent felt like their spouse/partner spends too much time on their cell phone, and 48% said they wished their significant other would spend less time on their cell phone and more time with their children.

Fifty-three percent admitted that they believed they personally are on their cell phone too much, while 59% believed their spouse or partner is on it too much. Thirty-eight percent of adults admit to using technology at least occasionally while eating at home with family members. Nearly as many people, 35%, reported using technology while eating at a restaurant with their spouse or partner at least occasionally.

Sixty percent of the adults surveyed said they’re concerned about the influence technology has on their relationship with their children, and nearly one out of four wish they had more information about technology and parenting, but don’t know where to turn.

“The overall survey results show that higher levels of technology use and technoference adds up to significantly less time spent together as a couple, less satisfaction and connection, and higher levels of depression and anxiety,” he said. 

Though it’s a national issue, Schramm said his inspiration for the survey was personal. 

“I was in the kitchen on my phone during breakfast one morning, and my son walked right by,” he said. “It was my wife that said, ‘Do you want to say good morning to your son?’ I’m a family researcher, but it was really one of those ‘aha’ moments for me.” 

For those who might be in the same boat, he said that getting a little too attached to your cell phone is perfectly understandable. 

“We’re born with three essential needs to survive and thrive – safety, satisfaction and connection,” he said. “Cell phones especially can fulfill all three needs, which is why they’re so addictive.” 

Used appropriately, they can also be a thing that helps keep a family running smoothly. 

“Cell phones can be really helpful for families,” he said. “They can bring people together who live far apart, and it can help parents keep tabs on the physical and emotional safety of their children.” 

The key, though, is to use your cell phone in moderation. As an extension of the survey, Schramm came up with two initiatives – K-TOOB (Kick Technology Out of Beds) and K-TOOT (Kick Technology Off of Tables). Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said that they thought K-TOOB is a good idea, while 88% felt that K-TOOT was a good idea. 

If you want to include either initiative as part of your New Year’s resolutions, however, Schramm suggests a slower rollout. 

“I think starting small is the best idea,” he said. “Especially for something so sudden, and that just came from one person in the family.” 

He added that one way to combat both those things is to start things off with a conversation. Everyone in the family should get the chance to share their feelings and work on a solution together. 

“A great first step is sitting down and having an open discussion about it, with no set agenda,” he said. “Kids, especially teenagers, want to be heard.” 

If you’re uncertain how to make such a discussion happen, Schramm said that the direct approach should work just fine. 

“You can just say, ‘Hey, let’s have a tech talk. We can talk about the positives of technology, and maybe some things we can work on together for some more family face-to-face time,’” he recommended.

The most important thing, however, might be to start with cutting back your own phone time. According to Schramm, children need at least nine minutes of face-to-face contact each day. This is especially true at key points throughout the day, such as just after they wake up, just before they go to bed, and just as they get home from school. He added that spouses also need their own face-to-face contact time, moments where they can talk about their days and what they might be feeling. 

The opportunities for that contact time may be more innocuous than people realize. Schramm calls them “bids for connection,” a term coined by relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. These “bids” are everyday interactions between people that provide opportunity to share thoughts and feelings. That sharing deepens the connection between people. 

“We need to listen and watch for bids for connection,” Schramm said. “It can be something so small as (your child or spouse coming home and saying) ‘You’ll never guess what happened today.’ If you’re distracted, you can miss it.” 

Sometimes, those bids for connection can even be completely wordless. 

“If your child comes home mopey and dragging his feet, that’s still a bid for connection,” he said. “You can see that, and think, ‘Oh, how am I going to respond to that?’” 

If you don’t see enough bids for connection, or are concerned that you’ve missed too many, it’s possible to create more. The biggest thing is to ask questions that encourage discussion, then be ready to listen and respond to their answers. This helps your spouse or children to feel validated, an important aspect to deepening the relationship. 

“You can ask questions like, ‘What was the best part of your day?’ ‘What was the hardest part of your day?’ What was the happiest thought of your day?’” he said. “If you put your phone down, you can be more open to these opportunities.”

In the end, Schramm said, the most important thing is to pay less attention to your phone and more attention to your loved ones. 

“Be in the moment,” he said. “Focus on who you’re with, and what you’re doing, without feeling the need to share it on social media.”