Recent Research About Screen Time Will Make You Want to Put Your Phone Down

Ever heard of ‘phubbing’?
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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Ever heard of ‘phubbing’?

“Let’s have breakfast in the morning before I leave for work.”

My dad used to say this to me on summer days when he went to work, and I had nothing to do. “OK, I thought. Some father-daughter bonding never hurt anyone. Even if it does involve waking up at 7 a.m.

I’d roll out of bed, splash water on my face in hopes of waking up (these were before the days of coffee for me), and stumble downstairs to meet my dad at the breakfast table.

Cereal, check. Milk, check. Dad, check. But instead of talking, all I heard was silence.

Did I do something wrong?” I remember thinking. “Dad sure isn’t talkative this morning. I was five minutes late, but surely thats not it.” I tried arriving on time the next morning—same silence. It happened the next morning. And the next. Turns out that my dad doesn’t have much to say in the morning. It’s not because he’s grumpy (that, on the contrary, is my problem), and it’s not because anything’s upsetting him. It’s because he’s busy reading the newspaper.

After each breakfast, he’d fold up his newspaper, put away his dishes, and look as content as he could be. “Thanks for having breakfast with me!” he’d say.

After a couple of these breakfasts, I realized that, according to him, we were having quality time. Sitting side by side, enjoying breakfast together—it didn’t require any talking, but there was a sense that we were there together.

Fast-forward to me today, mother to two toddlers who, figuratively speaking, pull me out of bed most mornings. After I’ve gotten their oatmeal on the table and finally sit down with my coffee, I look at my smartphone. My 3-year-old daughter is usually not pleased.

“Mommy, watch me!” She does a spontaneous dance. My 1-year-old boy throws his oatmeal on the floor—attention-seeking behavior at its best.

As it turns out, my phone, tablet, and laptop straddle a role between my children’s enemies and their best friends. They hate it when technology distracts from our time together, yet when they can get their hands on them, they’re obsessed. They want to know what all the fuss is about.

But I’m convinced that something different is happening here than my old breakfasts with my dad and his newspaper. Something different happens when I look at the news or emails, or anything for that matter, on a screen. 

Phones Are Distracting Us from Life More Than We Think

Turns out there’s this thing called phone snubbing or phubbing—“the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention”—and I’m a repeat offender.

Recent research shows that phubbing behavior is no joke. In a study due out in the January 2016 issue of Computers in Human Behavior, researchers James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business surveyed 453 American adults and found that phone-snubbing behaviors negatively impact relationship satisfaction. “Something as common as cell-phone use,” Roberts says, “can undermine the bedrock of our happiness.”

“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” Roberts says. “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”

While these researchers were focusing on relationships with romantic partners, I think it’s no less insightful for any relationship. Whether it’s our children, siblings, or significant others, it’s worth our time to avoid hurting our loved ones with phone snubbing.

In a recent article titled “Phubbing: What It Is and Why It’s Turning You Into a Jerk,” Dr. Jan Hill writes:

“Technology, with its instant communication and the capacity to build intricate global networks, provides us with infinite opportunities to expand our sphere of connections. Lots of followers and virtual friends can bring an individual sense of purpose and notoriety. Connectivity can build our egos and expand our minds.

“However, this kind of connectivity can also bring intense feelings of disengagement. We feel invisible and unheard when the vast majority of our daily connections are superficial in nature. The irony is, we struggle to alleviate our loneliness by reaching out through our phones in search of instantaneous and easy connection, which is the source of loneliness. We do this instead of sharing a deeper intimacy with those around us, through conversation and face-to-face experiences. Modern technology keeps us ‘alone together.’”

But we all know that even tons of Twitter followers and Instagram pals don’t really make up for real friends and relationships, right? Someone famous once said, “There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.” Don’t we all feel that to be true? If Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin were around today, she surely wouldn’t have revised her statement to say: “There is only one happiness in this life, and it is to be most liked on Facebook.”

Screens Have a Neurological Impact

There’s something different about a screen, and I believe it’s much different than my dad’s newspaper. Screens have a tendency to draw us into another world, much more so than a newspaper or even a book. We may still say we “get lost in a book” from time to time, but each time we click on our smartphones, we are consumed by the images, the stories, the infinite offerings of more information.

In addition, time is experienced differently by the phone snubber and the snubbee. Someone’s on the inside, and someone’s on the outside. What they’re experiencing is on entirely different wavelengths, and, unless we invite the person to look on with us, there really isn’t much contentment to be found just sitting near someone who’s enraptured by their screen.

Experts agree that technology—especially screens such as smartphones—are changing interpersonal relationships and hurting emotional bonds. “Technology can be a big hindrance on interpersonal relationships,” parenting expert and pediatric nurse Denise Daniels recently told Deseret News National. “For all its benefits, technology can completely rewrite a child’s brain pathways in a very different way than how they would normally develop.” When children are more exposed to screens than to human interactions such as a parent’s voice, music, touch, and play, “their neural pathways change, and different ones are created. It affects concentration and self-esteem; in many cases they don’t have as deeply personal relationships,” Daniels says. “They lose empathy. We’ve seen kids like this who don’t develop those sympathetic and empathetic skills they need.”

As Chandra Johnson summarized it in the Deseret News, “Think of it as the difference between looking at a picture of cool, green grass and actually walking barefoot in it. The problem is that the more people and children interact with a person or the real world through a screen rather than in real life, the less emotion is attached to the exchange.”

Further, screen time is something that’s much more addictive than other forms of reading. There is an immediate gratification element of the World Wide Web, and Internet usage has been linked to providing something like dopamine rushes in the brain. Try to unplug from your phone, and many of us these days are feeling withdrawal pretty quickly. Even if our phones were originally meant as person-connecting devices, if they’re overused to the point of an addiction, our smartphones can turn into self-serving acts.

It’s no wonder there is an influx of “Internet addiction” resources growing into an industry of their own now. While the psychological community still debates whether Internet addiction belongs alongside other common addictions as a diagnosed disorder, the onset of programs to help people curb screen time are a testament to the fact that many people feel it has a negative effect on their lives—yes, even to the point of checking themselves into rehab centers.

If you wonder whether you’re getting addicted to your smartphone, the basic litmus test is if you try to stop, but you can’t. Even if you’re not a full-fledged addict, it’s telling that you should consider scaling back if you feel empty after binges. If you feel a craving for it when you’re away. If it hurts your relationships.

Ah, relationships. Those things that are basically the most valued things in our lives? If only we could put fancy screen protectors and pretty cases around those.

What Real Quality Time Looks Like

Thankfully, we can; it just requires more work than a couple clicks. There are remedies for people who find that too much screen time is taking over; there are apps (ironic, I know) that help people monitor their smartphone usage and “break free” from its hold on them. But the hard work is up to us. The self-awareness to detect its effects on our relationships with our loved ones and even ourselves, the readiness to own up to it and change our behavior—these aren’t easy. But, then, what of any value really is?

I am committed to prioritizing the health of my relationships over the perks of my phone. Yes, I still live in a world where most of my work will get done on screens. But I can set up boundaries to limit the amount of time I look at screens in the presence of loved ones.

I want to be the kind of mom who is present to her children and allows them to appreciate emotional connections to life’s many experiences. I want to walk through the grass barefoot with them, as well as put grassy fields as a screen saver. I want to read my news and not snub my favorite little people in the world, who (it blows my mind every day) crave my love and attention more than anything else.

Is that worth the price of a newspaper subscription to me? You bet it is.

Now, when I look back on my mornings spent with my dad, I can see more clearly what set it apart from the phubbing I’ve been committing at my current breakfast table. The difference was that my dad and I were sharing quality time. Real newspaper in hand, real food, real air breathed together. That will always be more powerful and worthwhile than any electronic message, any day.

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