know how it goes: you're trying to talk to your grandchildren, but they're constantly checking their beeping phones. ‘I’m listening . . . ’ they insist. Except you know only too well they're not.
At home, over dinner, you want to catch up with your husband, but he's busy checking his emails on his iPad. He says 'Yes' every so often but, again, his attention is obviously elsewhere.
Part of you wonders who is messaging him so often. You feel a pang of mistrust; maybe you don’t even kiss him goodnight.
Then it occurs to you that you put an ‘X’ at the end of your text messages to each other more often than you kiss in real life.
For many of us, this behaviour is slowly becoming the new normal. But it shouldn’t: because technology is destroying real intimacy in our relationships.
I have been studying the digital world as a senior researcher at the University of Brighton since 1990, but it was six years ago when I started to notice myself spending too long on my smartphone: hours online at night and constantly responding to it in the day, even when surrounded by friends.
I realised I was beginning to get addicted — and I wasn’t the only one. So, I began studying the effects of our virtual lives on our physical relationships, and have since spoken to hundreds of couples whose partnerships have been threatened by their addiction to technology.
For some, the cause is what I call ‘wretched contentment’: spending evenings watching TV, all the while constantly checking phones without talking. It’s pleasant, but it’s not fulfilling.
As the quality of our physical connections gets diluted over time, we adjust, expecting less. We forget what real romance is. And we forget that sending kisses by email can’t replace actual intimacy.
Studies the world over have proven the same. Researchers at the University of Missouri interviewed hundreds of Facebook users aged between 18 and 82, who believed their partner’s Facebook use increased conflict in their relationship.
As the use of the site increased, the study found, so did their jealousy, leading to break-ups, cheating and divorce.
The evidence is everywhere: the more we resort to digital intimacy, the less fluent our actual intimacy becomes.
One couple’s relationship suffered when they were both promoted, and spent every evening answering emails from work, even at 11pm.
‘At first, we were answering emails from the bedroom,’ says Anne. ‘Which meant our sex life suffered. Then, my husband started working from the study next door instead. When he started texting me goodnight, instead of walking to the bedroom, I knew I was no longer a priority.’
This distance breeds mistrust. Partners worry who their loved one is talking to — often with good reason.
And an Oxford University study of 24,000 married European couples found a direct, inverse link between use of social networking sites and marital satisfaction.
The more couples read about others’ exciting lives on social media, the more likely they were to view their own with disappointment and disdain.
People can fall into ‘text’ arguments in ways they never would face-to-face. Misunderstandings are all too easy when you can’t read someone’s body language. And friendships are affected as we replace meet-ups with online communication.
The more we get out of practice at being with other human beings, the scarier physical closeness becomes, chipping away at our happiness. We all need deep communication and we’re not getting it.
Many children now Skype relatives more regularly, but visit them less. Most grandparents would prefer a call and a visit. Technology can be a beautiful way to keep in touch, but it should be an addition, not a replacement, to real relationships.WHAT YOU CAN DO . . .
Reclaim your home. Placing smartphones and tablets away from the bedroom and the places we eat is a big step in the right direction. Use a proper alarm clock, not your phone.
When you are meeting friends put your phone on ‘airplane mode’ and allow at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted communication.
When you text your partner saying ‘I love you’, close your eyes, picture your partner and really feel that love. When you send someone an ‘X’ in a text, make sure you give them a kiss in real life when you get home.
# Source: The Daily Mail, By Paul Levy, Digital Inferno by Paul Levy is published in the UK by Clairview Books, £12.99.