Stop Digital Media from Ruining Your Relationship

Last week I dragged my 14 yo daughter and 11 yo son to an excellent film: “Screenagers“. The documentary focused on the different ways kids are exposed to all types of digital media through “screens,” from computers at school, phones, social media, video games, and television. My daughter didn’t want to go, moaning, “what if I see people I know there??” My son sided with his sister, sure it would be “booooring!” Secretly, I was also a little worried: what if it was a rant against how our kids’ brains are rotting, telling me I was messing up as a parent, saying I’ve “got to do something about this now!!!!” After all, both of these kids have cell phones, iPads, and computers….

The film turned out to be a thoughtful and nuanced view of the reality of digital media in our lives. It led me to think more deeply about the ways in which using screens impacts relationships. A key point in the film was that using electronic devices and social media is not a way to DEVELOP close relationships. These methods are actually EXCELLENT ways to maintain relationships. But to have close interpersonal connection you still need face-to-face contact – you need to spend time together!

Hmmmmmm, so my daughter’s face glued to her Snapchat account (constantly posing for selfies at weird angles – what is that???) isn’t so bad as long as she has solid relationships to start with. And she also has to spend time in person with her friends. I was feeling better!

The film also emphasized that some adolescents are using phones to protect themselves from interacting in uncomfortable social situations. They use the phone to communicate about difficult topics or pretend to be “busy” on their phones if feeling left out or uncomfortable. This is problematic because these kids are not learning the communication skills they need to confidently navigate social interaction.

This sounded more concerning. But as long as my kids learned how to talk without a device, it seemed like things would be okay. Again, having face-to-face time seems very important.

Also, these avoidance behaviors are completely understandable. I see adults (even myself!) doing the same types of things all the time! Over the past decade, media-consuming devices have become a major source of conflict in marriage – for some, it is THE source of conflict! I would be surprised if you have not experienced some sort of tension around screens at some point –  most couples have. There is even a term for ignoring your partner to look at a screen instead: phubbing (phone + snubbing = phubbing).

The more dangerous role of digital media use in a romantic relationship is when it starts happening as a way to AVOID communication. This happens when a couple has been experiencing problems that seem too difficult to fix. It’s, of course, easier and more immediately pleasurable to skim through Facebook or Snapchat, play a video game or look at some porn than it is to try to talk to your spouse about something difficult.

So how can you deal with these issues?

Digital content and social media are everywhere……  You’re saying to yourself, “I have a phone, tablet, computers, TVs. And I don’t want to give them up!”

Well, you don’t have to!

But if you want to make sure digital media use doesn’t have a negative impact on your relationship, follow these guidelines:

  1. Communicate – Let your partner know if you need some down time to “zone out” on your device. If you have to send off a quick text when you’re in the middle of a conversation, tell your wife what you’re doing!

  2. Schedule – Create clear “no device” times that each of you can count on. These can be determined by time of day or certain activities.

  3. No Secrets – A healthy relationship is one where you can talk about the contents of your device with your partner. This is different than your husband being able to look through or demand to know what is on your phone whenever he wants. You still have a right to privacy!

  4. Face-to-Face Time – Talking in person is NOT the same as talking over a device. Find time to talk in person and make sure anything you say over a device you are willing to say to your partner’s face.

  5. Flexibility – Recognize that digital media and electronic devices are a part of our lives. Nagging your wife to put her phone down is not going to make her want to spend more time with you. Instead, talk about your feelings and look for a flexible approach to being together.

Following the movie, I had a conversation with my kids about some of these ideas. My daughter, who has had a cell phone for over 3 years now, had the most to say. I was surprised to discover that she and her friends intuitively know the importance of communication and spending time together WITHOUT their devices (Who knew?). She told me that when she and her friends are hanging out they secretly hide each other’s phones as a way to force interaction. And when out to eat, they stack their phones in front of them – the first person to pick up their phone has to pay the bill!

My son is more interested in video games than social media, but he also seems to have some sort of internal limit. He will suddenly jump up from his iPad and shout, “Dad, let’s go to the park. Let’s play soccer. Let’s wrestle!” The internal message for him is, “I’ve had enough of my screen. I need to move and interact.”

I was feeling okay about my kids’ use of digital media, but also more aware than ever about the importance of these issues. I know I don’t want to cut devices from their lives. Instead, I want to help them develop the skills to have healthy and productive relationships outside of their screens.

With so many easy electronic ways to check out and stay distant, it is no wonder relationships are harmed by social media and our devices. Smartphones and tablets are here to stay. But the good thing is that our draw to connect in meaningful ways has not disappeared. We KNOW that screens are not the way to do this, but it takes conscious effort to strike a balance.

Are you ready to make that effort? Follow some of the steps above to increase closeness in your relationship. Still struggling? Please contact us or schedule an appointment today. We’re happy to help!