Put Down Your Phone — It’s Ruining Your Relationships

Oh, the joy of being able to place a middle-of-the-night call to AAA when your car breaks down, and seeing photos of your niece’s first steps the moment after they happen. Our devices allow us to be everywhere all at once — to always be heard, to never be bored or alone, and to edit until we get it right, thus presenting ourselves exactly as we want to be seen.

But technology giveth and technology taketh away.

Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, addressed technology’s unintended side effects at a recent Family Action Network event.

New buzzwords have been created to describe some of technology’s adverse effects. FOMO — fear of missing out — is when we see our friends’ active lives on social media and compare our own unfavorably. Phubbing refers to “phone snubbing,” checking your phone or texting during conversations. Many kids can phub under a table or desk while maintaining eye contact, their attention in two places, but really in neither. Turkle shares that among young people interviewed, “89 percent said that in their last social encounter, they pulled out a phone.”

Many of us have also become unable to be alone — look around at any stoplight and you’ll see fellow drivers checking their phones. One recent study found that student subjects were willing to zap themselves with electrical shocks to avoid being alone with their thoughts for more than six minutes.

“If we cannot teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely,” Turkle says. “The capacity for solitude is closely linked to the capacity for a relationship.”

Fittingly, in addition to loss of solitude, our devices have led to the loss of closeness with others. “Research shows that even a silent phone between two people at a lunch table causes them to share less with each other,” says Turkle. In addition to more trivial conversation with a phone present, people feel less empathic connection with each other and as if they have less invested in the relationship. This bears true even if the phone is off the table and only in the periphery.

In addition, Turkle says that in the past 20 years, we’ve seen a 40 percent decline in levels of empathy among college students, with most of that decline taking place in past decade. Researchers link the decline to the presence of digital devices.

“We are experiencing a crisis in empathy and the cure is conversation,” Turkle says. “We have what we need — we have each other.”

Though she’s been called a “techno-cynic,” Turkle insists she’s pro-conversation rather than anti-technology. Evidence that supports her stance: Even casual conversation at work has been linked to higher productivity. However, younger employees often feel much less comfortable engaging in face-to-face communication. This is a skill that needs to be re-captured.

What Can We Do?

The good news is this: Humans are resilient. “We are essentially wired for conversation, wired for empathy,” Turkle says. Only a few days without screens and children begin to rediscover a capacity for solitude and for creating relationships.

After a mere five days at a device-free summer camp, children begin to re-learn to empathize with others. Turkle believes this is due to the simple creation of situations for face-to-face conversation. Indeed, campers reported feeling more interested in their summer friends than their friends at school because of their deeper connections.

Short of everyone packing up and heading off to camp, here are some things we can we do in the day-to-day to foster conversation and reclaim empathy:

  • Device-Free Zones: Remember that just the presence of a device can change the nature of your conversations, so create spaces or times in your home that are “device-free.” For example, outlaw phones and other screens during dinner to allow for real face-time.
  • Uni-Task: Accept what research has made clear time and again: The brain doesn’t multi-task. Turkle says, “Uni-tasking is the next big thing.” Giving all of your attention to one task at a time is the key to productivity and creativity.
  • Cultivate Solitude: Practice spending time alone and without devices. You will get in touch with your real voice and see your concentration improve. Try getting up or getting in early.
  • Embrace “Good Enough”: Not every bit of your communication has to be a model text, email, post, etcetera. Stop obsessing over every word — others are drawn to realness and vulnerability.
  • Tolerate the “Boring Bits”: “Conversation, like life, has lulls and boring bits,” says Turkle. “And, it’s often when we stumble, when we hesitate and fall silent, that we reveal ourselves to each other.” The constant inflow of information from our devices runs contrary to conversation. Be patient and let interactions unfold to find new closeness with others.

Turkle urges us to use technology mindfully and with intention so that we can get back some of the real closeness and empathy we’ve lost.


Watch Turkle’s full Family Action Network presentation and read her new book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age.”

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