My true love? My phone, obviously
I was fascinated by this article by Polly Vernon in The Times. It explored the recent growth of ‘Phubbing’
Does a night in with your partner mean a night gazing at the phone? It does for our writer — and she feels no shame
If you had to make a choice, would you choose your phone or your partner? Do you love your phone more than your partner? I know you’re going to say “no”, because I would, too, but I’d be lying, and so are you. My boyfriend and I spent last night, as we spend many nights, sitting on the sofa, our attention torn between each other, a Netflix original box set (Iron Fist, since you ask), my iPhone and his tablet . . . ah, but when I describe our attention as being “torn”, it wasn’t. Not really. Not at all.
There was no compromise, no switching from one preoccupation to the other. My boyfriend’s tablet held his attention for the whole evening. I have no clue what he scrolled through so intently, my guess would be sport, but I was too busy with my phone to care. My iPhone 6, my slender box of magic, my portal to other dimensions!
To Twitter conversations, simultaneous private WhatsApp asides regarding those public Twitter conversations, online shopping, and the myriad delicious deconstructions of Diane Abbott’s epic maths disgrace on that morning’s radio programme. My dear, darling, perpetually fondled phone. As for my boyfriend, oh, we shared space and oxygen last night. We shared soft furnishings. But time? Interest, intimacies, casual chat? Absolutely not. Our technological devices got all that. Of course they did.
There’s a word for what I did to my boyfriend. It’s “phubbing” — snubbing a partner and instead tending to your phone. The more general term “technoference” refers to the way in which any form of technology can disrupt our human interactions. In wandering the internet on his tablet, rather than engaging with me, my boyfriend ensured our relationship was subject to technoference. Although one could claim that my phubbing enabled his technoference — or was it the other way round?
If you’re judging us, gleefully anticipating the demise of our relationship, you should stop. I’m reasonably sure that you phub and technofere — or are phubbed and technofered with. That you sleep with your phone charging near your bed, as close and dear to you as your gently slumbering other half (don’t tell me there’s no symbolism there). That you experience gut-wrenching anxiety if you lose track of your phone, even for a moment, while, as my friend Phillipa, a designer, says: “My partner could go Awol for hours and I wouldn’t give a damn. Probably wouldn’t even notice.”
I’ve seen you, in restaurants and coffee shops, sharing a table with your (supposedly) significant other, your heads inclined over separate phones, entirely consumed by other people’s avatars/selfies/retweeted gifs of cats. A 2014 study of couples in coffee shops identified this as the “iPhone effect”. “The mere presence of a smartphone, even if not in use, just as an object in the background, degrades private conversations, making partners less willing to disclose deep feelings and less understanding of each other,” reports Shalini Misra, the academic who led the research.
According to a study published two years later in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 70 per cent of women thought smartphones were negatively affecting their romantic relationships. Women who reported high levels of technoference also claimed to be less happy with their relationships, and their lives in general. This might be true, but, anecdotally, I find women quite as capable of phubbing as men.
Take a colleague of mine, married for ten years, who says: “Who needs conversation — or sex — when there’s Instagram? Always someone new to enjoy hating because they’re showing off their perfect children . . . I do love my husband! We’ve been together for ever, so I know what I’m going to get with him. With my phone, it’s always different.” You sound like a woman torn between her long-term partner and a new thrilling lover, I tell her.
We have changed our phubbing habits over the past couple of years. There was a time when we phubbed everyone. However, like smoking, it became regarded as an antisocial and unappealing habit. Female friends stopped constantly checking their phones over brunch; dinner-party sets no longer had to make a point of banning phones from proceedings. We put our phones away.
“If I meet friends for coffee or drinks now,” my colleague goes on, “we have that ritual of turning our phones face down on to the table and leaving them there until the bill arrives.”
My friends and I do this, too, as a gesture of respect, the formal promise of our undivided attention. We might perhaps answer an urgent phone call, but we’ll apologise effusively for it. Yet we don’t feel obliged to offer any of those tech-related kindnesses to our partners. Quite the reverse.
How much does this matter? Relationship counsellors say phubbing is an increasingly referenced trope in sessions (“Phone-related neglect, I call it,” one therapist tells me). Ziyad Marar, a psychologist and the author of Intimacy (2012), says social media is almost purpose-designed to undermine our love lives.
“What social media has brought to us is a very low boredom threshold,” he says. “We’ve almost been trained, like those pigeons in boxes, to peck at stimulation. It’s an inability to appreciate aspects of the relationship that aren’t flashy or compelling, have them compete with the sheer satisfaction of rapid interaction, or in areas where you can pursue a genuine interest, or have a heightened experience. The technology industries are experts in trying to figure out how to compete for your attention. Poor old partner. How have they got a chance, when they’re up against extremely clever algorithms designed to serve up tasty, stimulating treats on a minute-by-minute basis?”
Misra says phones don’t only cleverly distract couples from one another: their habitual use results in the diminishment of our ability to empathise. When we look at each other’s faces less, she reasons, we inevitably stop seeing, and therefore reacting to, emotional cues.
That’s without contemplating the negative impact of our phones on our sex lives. You don’t have to be my friend of a friend Chris — a 36-year-old living with his partner who admits he was so gripped by the phone game Angry Birds that he had been known “to reach for my phone during sex, to collect a golden egg” — to know that phones can get in the way of sex, rather.
At the same time, “in a funny sort of a way, our phubbing has created opportunities for a different sort of intimacy,” says Karen, a lawyer. “When my husband is away with work I can tell if he’s alive or awake because I get a phone alert telling me he’s just logged on to Words with Friends.”
Yup, I say, and also, I did stop phubbing my boyfriend last night for ten minutes so that I could read him the full transcript of Abbott’s awful interview because I’d just found a link to it on Twitter. So my phubbing of him provided me with material that inspired me to stop phubbing him (briefly).
However, I can feel somewhat deprived on being phubbed. If, for example, I hear my boyfriend laugh, assume it’s in response to the (hilarious) thing I just said, then realise it’s provoked by a text that someone else has sent him, that stings.
We could try to de-phub our relationships. Start doing all the things we’ve heard we should: ban phones from the bedroom, embark on a regime of phone-free dinner conversations etc. It’s the tech equivalent of spicing up a sex life by Making An Effort (ugh).
On a greater, cultural level, Marar doesn’t think there’s much point. “I don’t think it will peak and move on,” he says. “It’s too satisfying. One of the reasons I find Valentine’s Day so grizzly these days is it’s the moment where people try to reverse all those trends — that strenuous effort to say, ‘We’re now going to focus on one another.’ ”
Even now, tech start-up companies everywhere are devoting themselves to concocting newer, more thrilling ways to encourage us to phub the living daylights out of our partners. We’re never going to win. And I’m not sure we want to, do we?
Are you addicted?
Answer “yes” or “no”:
1. Do you find yourself spending more time on your phone than you realise?
2. Do you pass the time on a regular basis by staring at your phone?
3. Do you seem to lose track of time when on your phone?
4. Do you spend more time texting, tweeting or emailing as opposed to talking to people in person?
5. Has the amount of time you spend on your phone been increasing?
6. Do you wish you could be a little less involved with your phone?
7. Do you sleep with your phone (turned on) next to your bed?
8. Do you find yourself viewing and answering texts, tweets and emails at all hours — even when it means interrupting things you are doing?
9. Do you text, email, tweet or surf while doing activities that require your focused attention?
10. Do you feel your use of your phone decreases your productivity?
11. Do you feel reluctant to be without your phone, even for a short time?
12. Do you feel uncomfortable if you accidentally leave your phone behind or have no service?
13. When you eat meals, is your phone part of the table place setting?
14. When your phone beeps do you feel an intense urge to check it?
15. Do you mindlessly check your phone many times a day?
Number of times answered “yes”:
5 to 7: You may have a compulsive phone use pattern.
8 and above: You might consider seeing a psychologist.
By Dr David Greenfield, Center for Internet and Technology Addiction (virtual-addiction.com)
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