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On a Date with You and Our Cell Phones

Cell phones disrupt relationships even when simply on display

You see two people out to dinner or maybe sharing a cup of coffee in a neighborhood cafe. Their cell phones are with them; perhaps on the table, occasionally intruding into the conversation, and eventually disrupting their relationship.

Cell phones have become part of our social lives. We use our phones to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, and family. They are part of modern romantic relationships as well. We text our partners. And we expect our partners to respond, quickly. In this way, cell phones contribute to relationships by allowing people to easily stay in contact with one another.

But cell phones may be disruptive as well.

Sometimes people interact with their phones more than their romantic partners. I’m sure you’ve seen couples in which one partner interacts more with the cell phone than with the person sitting across the table. Maybe you’ve even been the cell phone user or the victim of a partner more attached to the phone than you. Clearly cell phones disrupt relationships. Sometimes a cell phone seems to be more important than a romantic partner.

Interestingly the mere presence of a phone will disrupt relationship development – even when the phone isn’t being used. Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein (2011) looked at how the presence of a phone affected relationship development. They gave pairs of strangers a simple task – have a conversation with this person you’ve just met. Afterwards, the conversation partners rated trust, empathy, relationship quality, and the potential for friendship development. The trick is that for some pairs, a cell phone was left on a table next to where they were talking. This cell phone didn’t belong to either person. The phone never buzzed or rang during the conversation. It simply set there, doing nothing. Well, doing nothing except disrupting the development of a friendship. Przybylski and Weinstein found that the mere presence of a cell phone lowered relationship quality. The effect was particularly disruptive when the conversation partners were talking about more personal topics.

Why would the mere presence of a cell phone disrupt relationship development? Most likely, the cell phone leads people focus on something other than their conversation partner. Cell phones, even when not being used, divide attention. Cell phone thoughts can intrude into awareness when you see a cell phone. You find yourself thinking about all the things you could be doing with your cell phone. You could check and send text messages. You could look at Facebook. You could check your email. You could surf the web. You could do all sorts of things other than interact with the person across the table from you. Once those thoughts enter awareness, you may devote less attention to this new person.

Sometimes when couples are out together, the cell phone can become something shared and become a part of the interaction. One person can share pictures, tweets, or the latest cat video. It isn’t clear to me how this will affect relationship development. If you become focused on the phone, your relationship will be impacted. Even when your cell phone is simply sitting on the table, it may disrupt relationship development. So put the cell phone away. Focus on the person with you. Let that relationship develop. Cultivate your relationship with your cell phone when you are alone with your cell phone. Cultivate your interpersonal relationships when you are with that person.

More from Ira Hyman Ph.D.
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