Technology has been invaluable to keep us all connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, but could it also be separating us from those we love most?
Smartphones keep us informed and provide a constant stream of news and entertainment. I gifted my husband some wireless headphones because he loves to listen to podcasts. With them, he has access to news from renowned institutions around the world from any part of the house. I also insisted some years ago that he upgrade to a smartphone. It opened up a new world, and he can now follow the latest sports results anytime and anywhere.
However, I now find both the smartphone and the wireless headphones a mixed blessing. For instance, while I am happy that he enjoys listening to renowned commentators while he does the dishes in the evening, I get frustrated that it means we can no longer enjoy casual snippets of conversation. When he doesn’t hear me, I realize he is wearing the headphones.
Likewise, once pushed into getting a smartphone, being a news junkie, he’s often now glued to its screen.
The share of Americans who own a smartphone increased to 81 percent in 2019, from 35 percent in 2011. Those figures represent a huge increase in couples and families with smartphones in their daily lives. I imagine the increase is similar across many countries, and is an adjustment for couples and families around the globe.
According to recent research by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans say their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their cellphone when they are trying to have a conversation with them. Women are about twice as likely as men to say that they are bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their cellphone.
This suggests that smartphones are indeed having an effect on families.
I sometimes find myself annoyed by the feeling of being drawn to my phone throughout the day. I find myself looking at it out of habit without any clear purpose or mindlessly, once I put the children to bed because I want some downtime. Really, I would prefer to be doing something else. There is a constant stream of messages over various platforms, and I often feel pressure to respond—or worry that I will forget to if I don’t attend to it straight away.
Perhaps the solution is as simple as being more purposeful, acting with a clear plan in mind instead of out of habit or thoughtlessness. We can enjoy podcasts, but make time for casual conversations too. We can enjoy online communication, but ensure that our phones are inaccessible for at least a few hours a day. Perhaps we don’t need to feel obliged to respond quickly to messages, but instead have one time in the day that we clear them all.
Like so many things in life, taking a few moments to have a clear plan can avoid detrimental and mindless habits taking root. A global pandemic also brings increased awareness of the fragility of life, and the need to allocate our time carefully.
Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet’s blog on population issues, “Demography is Destiny.” While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a lifelong passion and she has contributed to a range of publications. She has regularly written on demographic issues for almost a decade, and her writing informs both academic teaching and international debate. Shannon balances her writing with her other passion—her family. She has three beautiful children and lives in Auckland, N.Z.