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Protecting Intimacy in the Digital Era

New research on the effects of smartphones on intimacy

There is a well-known, philosophical question, that asks, "If a tree falls in a forest and nobody's around to hear it, does it make a sound?" It seems to me that today, the updated version would read, if you experienced a happy moment and shared a photo of it online with your group and received an insufficient number of “likes,” was it really a happy moment?

This is not as facile as it may first seem. Today when online groups accompany us ubiquitously, we constantly look to them for confirmation for many different aspects and events in our lives.

In the old world, we had times that we spent with close family and friends, times we spent with acquaintances, and occasions we were in contact with people who lived further away. Now in the world of the smartphone, we have no real separation between all these different groupings, they all form our online group and we feel that we have to validate nearly every moment by receiving the confirmation of the group.

Our dependence on the group leads us to lose our own autonomy, and to access our worth based on the feedback of others. Thus the group is empowered to decide what is important and what is not. It is not uncommon for people to remove posts from Facebook which did not receive enough likes and shares. This need for external validation frequently leads to feelings of loneliness. These feelings come in part from our real human unique essence, what Carl Rogers, the romantic humanistic psychologist, termed existential loneliness.

Another major issue impeding on our intimacy is our multitasking. This is based on our belief that we can successfully function simultaneously in two environments, that of our smartphone and that of our physical situation. At any given moment, people are attempting, for example, to interact with others, watch a movie, listen to a lecture, participate in a work meeting, while engaged on their smartphone. For many, this is an appropriate way to be efficient and cope with the demands of the modern world. When it comes to intimacy, this behavior has been shown to be disastrous.

In a recent study carried out by myself and my colleague, Shir Etgar, we found an interesting bias among couples when we asked them how using their smartphone affected their intimate or romantic moments. Interestingly the answers were all identical, with no gender differentiation: When we asked individuals what happened when they used their smartphone during intimate or romantic moments, they reported that the atmosphere was unaffected, because their partner understood that this behavior was prompted by some urgent work-related, vital interaction. However, when we went on to ask them how they felt during intimate or romantic moments when their partner engaged with his or her smartphone, they all perceived this as very damaging to their intimacy. Since, when their partner used their smartphone, it was clearly for frivolous reasons and so destroyed the atmosphere. This kind of biased judgment in your own favor, and the different perception of another's identical behavior, (Actor-Observer Bias), demonstrates the challenge we face in making people more aware of the damage that multitasking can have on their relationships. It seems that it is much easier to judge the behavior of others as problematic, while assuming that our own identical behavior is somehow praiseworthy.

Clearly, our intimate relationships are under attack and eroding in this digital age, and it is vital that we take action.

One way to do this is to create what I have termed islands of love, whereby one day a week, we unplug ourselves from all communication gadgets. This day is devoted to being ourselves, and to spending time with those close to us, in face to face contact, without digital interference. It is devoted to breathing, thinking, enjoying and being in the moment. It is devoted to reducing the tempo of our lives, to listening and being listened to, to giving and receiving, to joy, fun, and love.

On the other days, our islands of love will be time-outs, (“mini islands of love”). These could be family meals or some other one-on-one time with a close friend or family member, when we have switched the smartphone off and are totally present. Doing so will not be easy at the beginning. We might feel embarrassed. People are used to a different pattern of behavior and this sudden change may be a little uncomfortable initially. However, even if they are challenging at first, there is good evidence that these actions are entirely necessary. Investing this time with our loved ones is the best thing we can possibly do; in a short time, the quality of our connection will be positively transformed and we will ask ourselves why we did not we do this before. We will achieve a higher level of psychological wellbeing and our ability to deal with difficult challenges will significantly increase.

See more on this issue in my new book, Internet Psychology: The Basics.


Amichai-Hamburger, Y. (2017). Internet Psychology: The Basics. New York: Routledge

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