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How 'Technoference' Could Ruin Your Valentine's Day

LAUREN GILGER: So we know it's Valentine's Day, which means I hope you've got a romantic dinner planned with your wife.

MARK BRODIE: I mean it'll probably include chicken fingers and mac and cheese. I mean, that's what the kids like so that’s sometimes what we eat.

GILGER: Okay, well if you do have Valentine's Day plans — with or without mac and cheese — here is an important piece of advice from David Sbarra — he's a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona: Don't bring your smartphone! He's one of the authors of a new paper that reviews all of the research out there on smartphones and how they affect our relationships. It's called “Technoference,” and that's where we began our conversation.

DAVID SBARRA: This is defined as the ways in which smartphones and smartphone use may interfere with or intrude into our everyday social interactions, either between couples or within families for parents and their children.

GILGER: And I would assume that is a growing body of research at this point.

SBARRA: Yeah. You know, in our review paper — a sort of large review paper — there are about 21 different studies in the past few years that have examined this in some capacity. And some of this is experimental research, studies examining what the mere presence of a smartphone does. Literally the experimental variables whether or not a smartphone is in the room or not in the room, next to two people in a get-to-know-you kind of a study, versus parents reports on their own phone use and their connection to their children. So it's a pretty diverse area of study but growing quite quickly.

GILGER: Okay so then tell us a little bit about, as you look at this body of research, this growing body of research, what were you able to gather about how smartphones are affecting even our closest relationships?

SBARRA: Right, so one of the things we're really trying to do in this piece is provide a theoretical account for why the phones may have such a powerful pull on us, and to think socially about why that is, and to try to understand or think about the ways in which the phones may pull us out of our in-person interactions and into the virtual world. And one of the arguments we're making is essentially that the phones provide access to social media and nearly instantaneous text messaging. And this essentially allows us to disclose our feelings online in a virtual world and be responsive to other people. And those two behaviors disclosing and responsivity are the central behaviors that underpin the psychology of intimacy. So what we're seeing is that, more than ever before, intimacy which is created over the course of evolutionary history to bond us to close others in small kin networks is now being extended over the entirety of our social networks. And we basically can reach out into the virtual world and be intimate with nearly anyone at any time.

GILGER: So I guess that sounds like a good thing on its face at least, right? That the draw of the smartphone to all of us is not necessarily a bad one. It's the sort of innate human desire to connect. But this can have an effect that on those in-person relationships.

SBARRA: Sure. And that's a terrific way of thinking about it, is that conflict in relationships, for example, over divided attention is nothing new. I mean we can imagine our grandparents fighting about, you know, one person reading the newspaper while another person telling him or her about their day at work, right? That's existed for eons as long as couples and family have been together. The issue is that the phones provide us a means to be distracted nearly constantly and it is a very powerful pull on us to tend to our relationships. It's not just that being connected is really good. We are designed to monitor our connectivity, so the phones provide this portal to with a world in which we are constantly monitoring this connectivity with other people. So the ability to like other people's responses pulls us out toward Facebook, onto Instagram, and those kinds of things. Part of the argument is determine whether or not there's a consequence for ongoing relationships.

GILGER: Okay. So this is Valentine's Day though, so there has to be something good here. I mean if the pull of connectivity is not a bad thing, right, there has to be a way in which maybe we can use those smartphones to help our relationships or to get around it, if you just don't even put the thing in the room.

SBARRA: First of all, there are innumerable ways in which the phones are benefiting us, right? So you can talk to your partner or FaceTime your partner in a long distance relationship. Kids call their parents when they need a ride home from school, or something upsetting happened. So we're not Luddites. We're not saying that the phones are bad and we're not saying we should go backward in any kind of way. I mean, the critical thing to really understand is we are at the absolute beginning of the way technology is going to reshape our lives. And you only become more and more immersive as time unfolds. And so this is really just a critical taking stock of what's going on. And anyone who's in any kind of relationship understands the experience of being snubbed by someone who's on their phone. And the question is what does it feel like and what are the consequences? But the main goal here is to when we pause and take stock, to ask people to act, or to challenge people to act, more intentionally and think about how we're using these devices in our lives and to think about how we want to we're around our friends and family and our loved ones. And when it comes to Valentine's Day, we're talking about gifts and ways to show your appreciation and your love, a very, very powerful way is with your presence. And you know, I mean that quite seriously. Undivided attention is really powerful and increasingly rare in this day in age.

GILGER: So there is a way you can do, you can give them undivided attention.

SBARRA: I think it's pretty important.

GILGER: David, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.

SBARRA: You're quite welcome. Thank you.

GILGER: David Sbarra is a professor of psychology at the U of A, telling us about his new paper exploring the effects of “technoference” on our relationships. You see, Mark, the best gift you may be able to give your Valentine today is your undivided attention.

BRODIE: That is good. That probably saves me a trip somewhere after work on my way home.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.