Over the course of this year, the headlines have been ripe with news articles giving technology, and especially smartphones and handheld devices, a bad rap. For just a few examples, see “Your Smartphone May Be Powering Down Your Relationship,” “Are Gadget-Free Bedrooms the Secret to a Happy Relationship?,” “Parents, Wired to Distraction,” or “Want to Perk Up Your Love Life? Put Away That Smartphone.”

There is no doubt that technological devices have become more prevalent in our homes and family lives. Every new report that comes out from the Pew Research Center shows increases in the number of adults online, the number of adults who own a smartphone, and so forth. For instance, in 2014, around eight in ten 18- to 49-year-olds owned a smartphone.

I love my smartphone and tablet, so I know very well how much good can come from technology, such as increased connection and ease of communication.1, 2

There is a flip-side to every coin, though, and this increased connectivity also brings the potential for problems. As our technology is always or almost always with us, often in our pocket, it becomes easy for us to fill the gaps in our lives with technology use.3, 4 Since I am currently on a college campus, all I have to do is look around me every time a meeting or class gets out: Many individuals leave the room with their heads already buried in their phones and stay that way until they reach their next class or their dorm.

Some individuals develop problematic or addictive-like use of devices, to the extent that their overuse begins to take a toll on their lives and their relationships.5

Many would rightly suggest that this isn’t just the fault of our devices; sometimes, there are certain things about the individuals who adopt a certain type of technology and also use it frequently. Research has shown us that younger adults and men are more likely to adopt new technologies,6, 7, 8 although the gender divide is quickly narrowing,8 and women are just as likely if not more likely to overuse these technologies. 9 Those who are outgoing as well as those who are depressed or lonely can also be more at risk for developing problematic types of use.5, 9, 10, 11, 12

Yet even those who aren’t always glued to their devices may be interrupted at times by their sounds and notifications while interacting with other people. The interruptions caused by technology can sometimes be annoying, but they’re perhaps especially so when you’re with the person you care about most.

Thus, my colleague Sarah Coyne and I set out to try to capture at least a little bit of what I termed “technoference”: “everyday intrusions or interruptions in couple interactions or time spent together that occur due to technology.”13 We wanted to expand on the work of researchers who have looked at how technology use may become problematic and how this may have negative effects on relationships.

We were able to sample 143 married/cohabiting women. Each woman reported how often certain devices, like cell or smartphones, tablets, computers, and TVs, interrupted interactions she had with her husband or partner. The women also rated how often specific technology interruption situations occurred, such as a partner sending text messages to others during the couple’s face-to-face conversations or getting on his phone during mealtimes.

Overall, about 70% of the women in our sample said that cell/smartphones, computers, or TV interfered in their relationship with their partner at least sometimes or more often. Many women also said that the following specific interruptions happened at least daily:

  • 62% said technology interferes with their leisure time together.
  • 40% said their partner gets distracted by the TV during a conversation.
  • 35% said their partner will pull out his phone if he receives a notification even if they are in the middle of a conversation.
  • 33% said their partner checks his phone during mealtimes that they spend together.
  • 25% said their partner actively texts other people during the couple’s face-to-face conversations.

Many of these interruptions are likely unintentional or unconsciously done, but can still send a message that the technology device is more important in that moment than one’s romantic partner. If this happens frequently, the relationship could suffer. And our findings suggest that this is often the case: We found that women who reported more technoference in their couple relationship also reported more conflict over technology use, lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms, and lower life satisfaction.

If you’ve experienced technoference and technology-related conflict in your own relationship, or if you want to avoid it before it starts, here are a few recommendations to consider.14

1. Talk about technology use with your partner and set mutually agreed upon rules, especially to manage technology use during times you are together or could be together. (Careful, this can be a touchy subject for some though and needs a light touch.)

2. Carefully and critically examine your own technology use. Ask yourself…

  • How often are you on your device during family time?
  • Is all of that use necessary?
  • Why are you getting on the device?
  • How do you think your partner or family feels when they see you get on your device or hear its notifications during family time?

3. Choose some technology-free times each day to just be with your romantic partner or family. For instance, parents might decide to turn off their devices once they return from work and put them someplace out of sight. Then they can turn them back on after the kids are in bed and they have had a few minutes to talk and connect as a couple. Other people may simply put their phones and tablets out of sight during mealtimes. These are just some examples. Feel free to get creative with it, but make sure you and your romantic partner agree!

Brandon T. McDaniel, M.S. is a doctoral candidate in the Human Development and Family Studies program at the Pennsylvania State University and currently manages the Daily Family Life Project. His research tends to focus on couple and coparenting relationships and influences on the well-being of these family relationships. Click here to see an infographic about how technology may interfere in couple relationships and what you can do about it.

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  13. McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2014). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000065
  14. McDaniel, B. T. (in press). “Technoference”: Everyday intrusions and interruptions of technology in couple and family relationships. In C. J. Bruess (Ed.), Family communication in the age of digital and social media. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.