Is Technology Ruining Our Relationships?

Banksy, a notorious and admired urban graffiti artist, created a mural in Bristol, U.K. that shows two people, presumably a couple, hugging and looking at their respective cellphones over each other’s shoulders.

Art, vandalism, social media and technology

Image: Shutterstock

The mural has the world talking. The mysterious artist isn’t known for vandalism but rather social commentary—art that becomes political discussion. And this unsolicited public artwork asks: “Is social media making us antisocial?”

We Can’t Multitask

Nielsen, the leading global information and measurement company (and the company best known for dishing out television ratings), reports that smartphones are changing our daily routine. In December 2013, Britons were on their smartphones an average of 41 hours. This is nearly two full days each month we spend away from real life. But we tell ourselves it’s OK because we can multitask, right? Wrong.

Humans actually aren’t very good at multi-tasking, nearly unanimous research finds. People who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. An interview with Clifford Nass, Stanford University communications professor and author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” discussed the topic on an NPR broadcast. He said people who try to multitask train their brains to become incompetent at filtering out irrelevancy and are therefore constantly distracted.

Our phones are a computer, mail service, calendar, camera, notepad and GPS. They function as our bank, our go-to for online commerce, our number cruncher, productivity tracker and actual telephone. With so much of our lives on a single device, it’s hard to separate phone use from real life activities. We’ve all heard the adage “don’t bring work home with you,” and maybe you don’t actually bring files or your laptop home, but what about the work emails dinging and buzzing on your phone constantly? It’s hard to separate one part of your life from the next.

Harris Interactive, a marketing research firm and affiliate of Nielsen, in collaboration with Jumio, reported that people use their smartphones everywhere. One in 10 adults uses his or her smartphone while having sex, an act that is arguably the most intimate act between humans. The same study cites 33 percent of people use their phones while on dinner dates and 12 percent believe their smartphones get in the way of their relationships. What does this mean? It means we have a hard time being present. Because we’re constantly vacillating between digital life and real life, torn between in-person conversations and buzzing text message alerts.

Apps Can Help Us Put Down Our Phones

A Singapore-based company was just awarded a $30,000 grant to research and develop an app, named Apple Tree, that ironically encourages people to set down their phones. The app, set to launch in early 2015, prompts users to touch their cellphones together. This action is followed by apples growing from trees on the screen, which can only happen when other apps aren’t in use. Apples on the tree are treated as currency, with which users can purchase rewards. This is good news for your dinner date or house guest because its goal is to help users form good habits by rewarding face-to-face communication.

Smartphones Aren’t All Bad

Despite the disconnectedness, there are, of course, ample benefits to smartphones, too.

We’re connected everywhere. Whether sending a text to remind your mum to pick up milk at the store or making a quick call to coordinate the logistics of soccer practice, phones are an everyday dependable resource. Whether you are in the car, in the house, at school or at work, you are likely to be close to a cell tower, which means instant communication and portability is available.

We’re connected with everyone, and with the birth of social media, it seems we’re never alone. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all provide networks to connect us with others from old school friends to new friends from book club. Additionally, there are social networks out there pairing up people with similar interests, friend-groups, livelihoods and geographic locations, all with just the tap of a button.

We’re also more resourceful than ever. With such easily accessible information via Google Now (available on Android devices) and Siri (available on the iPhone), looking up information is no longer a library trip away.

Can We Have It All?

Although all of these social networks are great, face-to-face communication still proves to be an important part of our lives. This said, your smartphone, tablet or computer can provide you with this type of communication if you want. FaceTime, for example, is a phone app that connects Apple users with both voice and video technology, and it aims to connect people all over the world. Skype, a similar video platform, comes as a standard app on Android devices. Although these apps aren’t quite the same as sitting down to a cup of coffee with a friend, it is a happy medium between in-person associations and a 140-character tweet.

This happy marriage of real life and digital interaction is, and always will be, about hard work and persistence. Digital communication and the intensity with which we engage in it has the potential to damage us. It seems that if we have infinite ways to communicate, we actually may be less connected than ever. Therefore, it’s our job to ensure we live in both digital and real life simultaneously rather than being torn back and forth.

The Banksy mural is controversial. It’s not because the black and white stencil has a faint trace of vandalism but rather because it makes us examine the technological world we have created. It’s up to each individual whether technology is good or bad in their lives. So the question remains, can we have it all?