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Technology bringing people together
Technology and relationships: have we become disconnected?

Two single students walk into a uni bar… then promptly pull out their phones to check Tinder. Such is a sign of the times, as many of us have lost the ability to strike up a conversation without a digital aid.

This struggle doesn’t just apply to the dating scene. Our addiction to technology appears to also be having implications on family dynamics, workplace productivity and general communication skills.

Actual evidence of tech-disconnection is a mixed bag, however, says Deakin psychology lecturer Dr Sharon Horwood, who is leading a study into the relationship between smartphone use and mood. In some cases, these new means of connecting are allowing us to bond like never before.

Swipe right for love

‘Since the introduction of smartphones, which was around 2007, online dating has taken on a new look and is evidently very popular,’ Dr Horwood says.

Given this tech is quite fresh, it’s no surprise younger generations are by far the biggest users. Relationships Australia data suggests around 75% of millennials use online dating services to look for a serious relationship.

So, has the verbal pickup line finally been superseded by a sequence of equally awkward and subjective emojis?

‘Online dating is certainly very popular, but it hasn’t completely replaced more traditional means of meeting people,’ Dr Horwood says. ‘Not yet, anyway!’

A lack of sympathy through the screen

Cyber bullying is a growing issue facing our society, with many blaming the lack of accountability and consequences people face when ‘trolling’ online.

This isn’t helped by the style in which we communicate through new technology, with character limits and instant messaging changing our normal conversational structure and signals.

‘Future studies plan to look at whether teenagers are having less opportunities to learn empathy and restraint when it comes to the way they communicate with their peers,’ Dr Horwood says.

‘Saying something mean or hurtful to a real person forces you to see the emotional hurt that those words have caused. Saying it in a message takes away those non-verbal cues; cues that in most people will trigger feelings of guilt and/or empathy, therefore realising your actions have hurt someone.’

Harmony at home

Tech taking over at home throws up a mixed bag of outcomes, with many families struggling to get the balance right.

‘Partner-wise, there’s qualitative evidence of us being more connected than ever, thanks to smartphones enabling dialogue that didn’t exist before, like throughout the working day or when in remote areas,’ Dr Horwood explains.

‘Yet, “phubbing”, the act of snubbing your partner by using your phone when in their presence, has become prevalent in research around reduced intimacy and relationship satisfaction.’

In terms of family harmony, the data is more clear-cut.

‘There’s a lot of evidence that technology is the basis of a considerable amount of parent-child conflict at home,’ Dr Horwood says. ‘Specifically, conflict between parents and children with regards to the amount of screen time kids should have.’

This screen addiction is two-fold, as the ‘always on’ approach to working is seeing many adults struggling to ‘switch off’ after work.

‘In some cases, larger organisations have begun to shut down organisational email servers in the evenings so that employees have to take a break from work,’ Dr Horwood says.

'Saying it in a message takes away those non-verbal cues; cues that in most people will trigger feelings of guilt and/or empathy, therefore realising your actions have hurt someone.'

Dr Sharon Horwood,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Connect and unplug

‘Tech-free time for families is essential,’ Dr Horwood says. ‘New research points to real-world social networks and strong parent-child relationships being protective factors for screen addiction in kids.’

In other words, kids who have opportunities for frequent real-world socialising, and who have a strong bond with their parents, are less likely to develop problematic screen use.

‘It’s a case of lead by example, put your phone away as much as possible when you are around your kids,’ Dr Horwood continues.

This rhetoric can be applied by all, whether you’re out for dinner with friends or visiting your grandma, actively shutting off your phone will help build up those relationships that may have fell by the wayside in recent times.

Participate in Dr Horwood’s continuing research into smartphone use.

Are you addicted to your smartphone? Take our quiz to find out!

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Dr Sharon Horwood
Dr Sharon Horwood

Faculty of Health, Deakin University
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