Originally published in the Journal Inquirer, June 18, 2012
by Kristen J. Tsetsi

Matt Bohonowicz was reading on his iPad in a Vernon, Conn., diner when he noticed, across the room, a table of four: an older couple in their sixties and a younger couple in their thirties. He didn’t know the relationship between the two generations, but he did know something was happening at the table that bothered him.

He pretended to read while surreptitiously observing the older couple trying to communicate with the younger pair.

“The entire time they’re there,” he says of the younger couple, “for half an hour, they’re both on their phones. The older couple is continually trying to engage them in conversation, and the younger couple is so busy with the phones that they’re not able to do it.”

Smart phone use can range from rude, as in the above case, to destructive. Where it has the greatest opportunity to become destructive on a personal level is in romantic relationships.

Owner of CT Mediation and Therapy in Manchester and a licensed professional counselor, Bohonowicz, who counsels families and children as well as couples, has seen his share of the problems smart phones can cause between partners.

“The phone is getting in the way of what we understand to be traditional ways of interacting with human beings,” he says.

What we used to understand as boundaries no longer exist, he says. Where we used to keep largely separate our groups of acquaintances — friends in one circle, coworkers in another, home life in another — we now mash it all together on social networking sites frequently accessed by smart phones. Information that used to be shared in person with a single friend is now shared in one keystroke with family members, coworkers (even superiors), and absolute strangers.

“The lines have been blurred at this point,” Bohonowicz says. “As a society, we’re still trying to understand how to moderate and put boundaries around that information.”

In the meantime, we continue to publish private thoughts, daily occurrences, and just-made decisions (such as breakups) on our Facebook or Twitter pages, often even before sharing that information with our significant others.

Whether couples are intentionally using their phones to avoid interacting with each other or inadvertently limiting the frequency with which they connect on a meaningful level, a disconnect is taking place. Not only because of time spent staring at the phone, but because there is an erasure of the line that used to separate what romantic partners shared only with each other and what is now being shared with everyone.

“There’s a certain level of information you have about each other in an intimate relationship that no one else has,” Bohonowicz says. “You should know things about each other no one else knows.”

Also key to intimacy is communication, and Bohonowicz says social media and other internet distractions, to which smart phones provide constant access, enable couples to avoid connecting with one another.

“If you sit at dinner and watch, look around you, you see people on their phones,” he says. “They’re not conversing. There’s a woman and a man, and each of them is on the phone, texting, Googling, or Facebooking. It’s something artificial coming between what could otherwise be an intimate relationship.”

This happens to couples at home as easily as it does in public. Instead of doing all the little things they used to do early in the relationship, such as taking a walk, giving a foot rub, or watching a TV show together, they’re on their phones, Bohonowicz says.

Although smart phone use and social networking can be a joint activity, as when looking up a restaurant or attraction, or even a useful conduit to a healthy social life — “I met my wife on Match.com,” Bohonowicz says — it’s typically an isolating activity.

So why do couples spend so much time on their phones? Why does anyone, for that matter?

Intermittent reinforcement, Bohonowicz says.

Called one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) methods of reinforcement, it delivers an unpredictable reward schedule. The most popular example used to illustrate the effects of intermittent reinforcement is a person playing the slot machines. Exactly when the fruits or bars will line up and generate the winning “ding! ding! ding!” is unknown, but eventually, it will. And it will again.

“It’s not an addiction, but there’s an addictive quality to it,” Bohonowicz says.

The “likes,” shares, comments, and tags on social networking sites work in much the same way, he says. People will even wake up in the middle of the night to check reactions to something they’ve submitted.

And it’s not as if people need to go somewhere special to have access to the sites delivering this reinforcement, Bohonowicz says. “It’s just in your pocket. It’s constant access to these different forms of social interaction.”

The real-life social consequence of such frequent use, particularly among younger generations who grew up with smart phones, is that using them has become so natural that it’s hard to pull back, to use it in moderation.

Bohonowicz likens cutting down on smart phone use to cutting down on cigarettes, for some.

“They look at it as being a very difficult thing to step away from,” he says. “But once they do, they like the benefits.”

For those who are so accustomed to using their smart phones that it’s a veritable extension of their hands, “moderation” may have little meaning. What, exactly, is moderation? And how do you know whether you’re using your smart phone “too much”?

Bohonowicz recommends users consider whether they’ve ever had to ask, “What did you say?” because they were too busy with their phone to hear the person in front of them. If the answer is yes, the phone is being used inappropriately.

“When people are looking for an intimate moment by speaking directly to you, help them get that,” he says.

As for everyday use, a safe rule of thumb to follow is this: if it would seem strange to pick up and start reading a book at a particular moment — while driving, while sitting with someone, while at work — you probably shouldn’t pick up your smart phone.

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About Kris Tsetsi

Kristen J. Tsetsi is the author of the novels "Pretty Much True..." and "The Year of Dan Palace" and the short fiction collection "20 Short Stories," all published under the name Chris Jane. Website: http://kristenjtsetsi.com

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