Can smart phones ruin relationships?

TOGETHER ALONE: Are smart phones coming between us?
TOGETHER ALONE: Are smart phones coming between us?

Once you hit a certain age it becomes increasingly difficult to find time to socialise with friends.

With longer office hours and getting small businesses off the ground, not to mention the sleep deprived horrors associated with first time parenting, it's no longer as simple as nipping off down the pub for a boozy chinwag at six pm.

Therefore it was nothing short of a miracle when a group of friends and I managed to pull off a long weekend away from the city, recently.

Hiring a big, beautiful house, it looked set to be a few glorious days of home-cooked meals, board games and lazy bushwalks.

When it started raining on the first day we could barely contain our excitement that we were officially allowed to ditch the exercise in favour of parking it in front of the fire full-time and slowly work through the arsenal of alcohol we'd brought along.

That's why it was so strange when, away from work calls, computers and our real lives, six pyjama-clad adults immediately whipped out their smart phones and began tapping away.

Rather than take advantage of the fact we were finally all together with no distractions, it appeared we were eager to create some.

This scenario is nothing new. Affording us the ability to be connected with everyone at all times, iPhones and their counterparts have infiltrated our lives to such an extent that they can interfere with genuine human interaction.

Everyone has been at a restaurant or dinner party with the friend who can't stop texting at the table, or gone out with the person who interrupts the outing to make everyone pose for a photo - not for a personal memento but to post it on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter and share it with 500 of their closest non-friends.

Even the cinema is no longer a safe place.

You'll be sitting there as a film is reaching its climax only to be distracted by a fellow patron two seats across who is texting away and illuminating the previously dark room with a screen brightness that could be seen from space.

Now, instead of taking in the big-screen action you're too busy sending silent hate vibes to this person who can't seem to stay disconnected for two goddamn hours.

Which, beyond annoying, is just plain rude.

"A smart phone is definitely handy and a wonderful tool - however just because we can doesn't mean we should," said etiquette expert Anna Musson, of The Good Manners Company.

She adds that tinkering on Facebook during dinner or taking non-urgent calls during work meetings is also a no-no.

"Only resort to this if it's truly important, just taking a call that a voicemail could handle doesn't cut it.  Try to be in the moment more - not constantly thinking of what's happening on Facebook or who may call with an update. Be present," she said.

"If you must answer, excuse yourself before pulling the phone out of your pocket with a simple, 'excuse me for a moment' and take the call elsewhere. 

"If you are going into a meeting and your wife is about to have a baby, it is appropriate to let the group know you may need to take a call, but only do this for emergencies.  A person who does this for every meeting is annoying and will be perceived as a big-noter."

Though inflated egos in the workplace are nothing new and predate our rapidly advancing technology, one of the areas in which it's causing a major and comparatively recent disruption is in relationships.

After noticing that we hadn't spoken for almost an hour because we were playing on our phones at the aforementioned getaway, my friend explained that his wife had gotten so sick of him playing games in bed that, instead of simply switching off, he bought her one of her own in an effort to restore marital harmony.

I must admit that I too am guilty of putting my phone before my relationship - guilty being the operative word.

When my boyfriend, who is vehemently anti-iPhone, gets up for work I reach across, half asleep, to check emails while he's in the shower.

But, with my constant checking becoming something of an ongoing issue, when he returns to the bedroom to get dressed I pop it under my pillow and pretend to be asleep. Behaviour I recognise as absolutely ridiculous.

Though we saw a similar wave of anti-social behaviour with the advent of the Blackberry - or Crackberry as they are sometimes known - they were largely owned by corporate types.

But now that smart phone use is becoming so widespread and causing problems among a larger cross section of the population, could it be said that we're becoming collectively addicted?

"It's very possible," said Sydney-based psychotherapist and addiction specialist Amber Rules. "You only have to look at a list of 12-step meetings to see that there are many different types of addiction.

"Fifty years ago there was no such thing as an online gaming addiction because computers didn't exist in every home but gaming addiction is a very real problem now.

It could be said that smart phones have the same potential."

Adding weight to this theory is a recent study by telecommunications company Gazelle.

They found that while 83 per cent of respondents reported using their iPhone in social settings, such as meals or parties, and 85 per cent made calls on the toilet, a sizeable 15 per cent also added that they'd rather give up sex than their phone.

Though some have found a way around this with an unsettling four per cent admitting to using their phone while having sex.

"It's amazing to think about how much the iPhone has changed consumers' lives in just five short years," said Anthony Scarsella, Gazelle's chief gadget officer.

But is that necessarily a good thing?

Broadly classified as recurring behaviours that have an adverse effect on an individual's life, Rules says addiction of any kind has the ability to negatively impact relationships and can cause a breakdown in communication and loss of intimacy.

She recommends that those who feel their smart phone use is starting to cause serious problems seek outside help.

"As with any addiction, take it seriously," she said.

"It might seem odd to view excessive use of a gadget as an addiction but if you feel that your reliance on your smart phone is having an impact on your physical or mental health, or your relationships, seeking counselling is important."

If that seems too drastic a measure but you still can't seem to get a handle on it by yourself, Musson says you run the risk of alienating those closest to you - your excessive smart phone use sending the signal that you value work or Facebook over them.

"The rule of thumb is that the person who is in your immediate company takes precedence over the person on the phone. Voicemail is there for a reason, you don't have to respond to your phone just because it makes a noise," she said

"Consider it an exercise in time management - when you are at home, you are in home time, partner and children come first.

Accessing your phone for entertainment or accessing social media sends a message that they are not as important or interesting as the phone and this can have a negative impact on your relationships, so be warned."


Sydney Morning Herald