“Hm hmmm?” I said, vaguely attending to my youngest child’s in-depth description of what features he would add to a Minecraft realm if given full coding control. My attention was split between his description (which could go on without end) and scrolling through a headline a friend had texted me.
Actually I hadn’t made a conscious choice to pick up my phone. But in the words of design ethicist Tristan Harris, “proximity is destiny.”
While this isn’t one of my proudest parenting moments, I know that my experience is not unique. Adults love lamenting that groups of teens would rather be on their phones than with each other. The ubiquitous scenes of groups of young people hunched over their devices provides plenty of fodder for a “kids these days” reaction to tech’s magnetism. Yet data show that teens and adults alike struggle to prioritize the personal interactions in front of us over the tempting allure of our phones. A national survey revealed that 89% of adult cell phone owners used their phones during their most recent social interactions.
Given that our phones are always on and close by, it is increasingly the norm to shift attention frequently between the people in front of us and the devices in our hands.
So how does this actually impact our relationships? Parent-child? Teen-teen?
Technoference is real
Technoference is the term to describe when someone uses technology to withdraw from interaction, either on purpose or inadvertently. Research is pretty clear that technoference is associated with lower relationship quality. If I’m honest with myself, technoference prevented me from paying attention to my son’s Minecraft deep dive (or leveling with him that I couldn’t listen right then).
When it comes to parents and kids, parental “absorption” in devices does predict less conversation, a higher likelihood of either externalizing behaviors in kids (tantrums etc…) or internalizing behaviors (withdrawal), and higher parental hostility towards kids’ attempts to get our attention. In other words, the more we fall into rabbit holes on our phones, the more likely our kids are to escalate challenging behaviors and the more annoyed we are about those disruptions. Not great news.
We see similar dynamics play out within friendships. One study of young adults showed lower relationship quality and increased loneliness when young people perceived themselves as distracted by their phones or when they perceived their friends’ phone use as dismissive. More bad news.
So when we see a parent on their phone or a group of teens all hunched over their phones, we usually assume that technoference is at play. How could they be connecting with one another when there is a device between them? In other words, it’s easy to conclude that there must be a fairly straightforward equation when it comes to phones and connection:
Relationships + Phones = Inevitable decline in relationship quality.
It isn’t always that simple
But does the presence of a phone during our interactions inevitably cause technoference?
In real life, we turn to phones sometimes for “time for ourselves” and as a way to take a much-needed break from parenting demands. It also could be that challenging behaviors increase parent stress, which makes them reach for their phones more often (rather than the other way around). Finally, it isn’t realistic (nor necessarily beneficial) to spend every waking moment engaged in attentive and responsive presence with our kids. Depending upon what we do on our devices, they can be an important source of support, information, and problem solving that can ultimately strengthen relationships.
We also know that “co-viewing” media together with kids and teens alike is a positive form of parental mediation. We have lots of evidence that viewing and talking about content together in the context of warm interaction and conversation is actually protective.
Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios that illustrate the complexity within a parent-child-technology relationship:
Scenario #1: My son is eager to share his ideas about Minecraft and I am only partially paying attention while scrolling through headlines. I pretend to attend by saying, “Hm mmmm?” He gets frustrated and starts tugging on my arm and raising his voice. I raise my voice in return.
Scenario #2: My son is eager to share his ideas about Minecraft. I know that I cannot listen to deep dives about Minecraft in perpetuity. I say, “I’m happy to hear your ideas. Why don’t you tell me your top three ideas right now. I am ready to listen. After those three, I need to do a couple of things on my phone. How does that sound?”
Scenario #3: My son is eager to share his ideas about Minecraft. I say, “I’m having a hard time focusing on what you’re saying when I am getting texts. I’m going to turn off text notifications for ten minutes. Now let’s open the Minecraft app on my phone so you can show me what you are talking about.”
Note that the opposite of technoference isn’t sustained and meaningful phone-free eye contact from dawn to dusk. We all live in the real world. It’s clear that phones played a role in each of these scenarios but with very different interaction patterns.
Teens, friends, and phones
For young people it turns out that the picture is equally as complicated. Research with young adults indicates that the level of what we call “digital social multitasking” alone is not directly associated with lower relationship quality or loneliness. Instead, the association hinges on the negative perception of those multitasking behaviors. Positive perceptions of these behaviors are actually common among young people and can lead to stronger feelings of connection.
Before we release our teens to their friends and phones with reckless abandon though we should note that at least one study indicates that younger adolescents appear more likely to perceive their own levels of distraction in a more negative light. This makes sense. The skills of prioritizing, impulse control, and goal directed behaviors are still under construction in early adolescence. This might make the task of resisting unrelated digital distractions more challenging at this age. Interestingly though, the same study found that adolescents generally perceived their friends’ digital social multitasking positively.
Let’s consider a few scenarios illustrating this:
Scenario #1: Two friends are hanging out. One young person is sharing a vulnerable experience about their day. Their friend is only half-listening, responding to unrelated texts from friends.
Scenario #2: Two friends are hanging out. One young person is sharing a vulnerable experience about their day and asks for support. Their friend pulls out their phone to look for a resource that they think might be helpful or a meme that they think might cheer them up.
Even without a lot of detail, it seems clear that the first scenario wouldn’t feel very good and that most young people would feel dismissed by this digital social multitasking. The second scenario, on the other hand, may actually strengthen both friends’ feelings of engagement and connection.
But what about the impact in more informal interactions? Let’s consider a couple more scenarios:
Scenario #1: Two friends are hanging out. Both have their phones out and are enjoying showing each other videos that they both think are hilarious.
Scenario #2: Two friends are hanging out. Both initially have their phones out and are enjoying showing each other entertaining videos. One friend tires of this and wishes that they had more time to just talk about other things. The friend puts their phone away and attempt to shift the dynamic. The other phone-focused friend doesn’t notice and continues to watch videos and starts sharing them to other friends on a group text.
We can see in these scenarios that whether or not digital social multitasking is perceived as negative or positive depends upon a feeling of mutual agreement about the goals of the interaction. In other words, being on the same page about digital social multitasking colors our perception of it.
With all of this in mind, perhaps the more accurate equation to illustrate friendships and phones should read:
Relationships + Phones = It Depends
What should we focus on now?
The latest data once again belie simple equations and point toward relational skill building in a digitally connected world.
We should take very seriously the allure of distracting technology and the real, negative consequences of “technoference” in our relationships. This is why having some consistent screen free spaces or creating social norms where devices are “off and away” sometimes is so protective. We know that face-to-face time for young adolescents helps practice essential relational skills. Even five days without phones can improve young people’s capacities to read non-verbal social cues.
But lecturing teens that phones inevitably ruin all relationships or that hanging out with phones is “not real connection” is likely to backfire. Entirely phone-free relationships are pretty unrealistic for most teens at this point. But more importantly, it doesn’t respect the reality of their digitally connected lives.
That’s why Dr. Chia-chen Yang, who has dedicated her career to researching the psychosocial development of young people in the digital age, suggests that all of us would benefit from avoiding the lectures and stressing the relationship skills that we need to make healthy decisions about device use in the context of connection.
She suggests that we focus on:
We can practice monitoring the impacts of our digital social multitasking. As adults, we can narrate what we see in our own behaviors and also ask kids for feedback. Adults and teens alike can reflect on questions like:
- How is this impacting my relationships?
- How and when is it benefitting this relationship?
- How and when does it get in the way?
- What unmet need do I have that I am looking to meet with my device? Is it meeting this need?
- How will I attend to the changing answers to these questions in different contexts?
We can practice talking openly and honestly about our expectations for tech in relationships in different times and contexts.
- What does my family want and expect?
- What does this group of friends want or expect?
- What do I want and expect?
- How do we create norms and communicate with each other when we are in alignment? When we aren’t?
I would add at least one more skill to Dr. Yang’s suggestions:
Critical digital literacy
Learning about the digital attributes and business models that make our devices so alluring helps us better understand what we are up against. Building self awareness is essential, but putting our relationship goals into practice is a heavy lift given the persuasive design features baked into our devices. Critical digital literacy also helps us ask important questions like,
- If we were to design devices to help strengthen and grow relationships what features would they have?
- Who benefits from me spending time on this app? Who bears the cost?
- Is my impulse control a fair match against persuasive design? If not, what can I do about it?
In real life, we don’t grapple with these questions using formal language or in one conversation. Instead, we plant the seeds and practice these skills over time. This is part of the shift from control to connection that young people need.
Phones or no phones – Are we turning towards each other?
So often, studies about technology are less about tech and more about what it means to be human.
We should take seriously the intersection of tech design and adolescent development that can make it difficult for young people to turn away from their devices. We should take seriously the intersection of digital distractions and the sometimes crushing demands of parenting in this country.
But in our haste to address our concerns, we shouldn’t focus solely on the absence or presence of phones. We should also build the reflective and relational skills we desperately need to strengthen our connections. We should consistently ask the most important question of them all: are our devices pulling us towards one another or away from each other?