How frequent is technology interrupting your life?

Featured photo by cottonbro, from Pexels

Looking through the mirror

It was another day as usual, while I was in the waiting room for my medical appointment. A parent couple arrived accompanied by his little daughter. They seated and began to use their cell phone while her daughter was jumping, screaming, and running around the waiting room. I and someone else in the waiting room had a feeling of discomfort. Then her parents decided to calm down her daughter by giving an electronic tablet to play an electronic game. Problem solved. The little girl was now literally sticked to the screen playing the video game, while her parents were silently using their cell phone. A regular case of the use of technology as a distraction reducing social interaction.

This experience brings up a mirror image about the technology interference nowadays, which has become an addiction to get sticked to our cell phone screens, to “distract ourselves”, to compulsively calm our anxiety while we wait, or even when we are accompanied by friends and family. We are getting used to frequently look at the cell phone during the family meeting in the living room or at the table, or even absurdly while at bed with the partner, choosing to immerse in the screen, instead of enjoying the social interaction.

Technology in the middle

The problem apparently is not the use as such of technology since it brings us many benefits. The problem is the interruptions of technology in our interpersonal relationships, between the family, partners, and friends. Without realizing it, we interfere and impact our relationships to give preference and attention to the use of technology. It is very difficult for us to stop using our cell phone as soon as we hear the alarm or feel the vibration of received messages. We cannot resist the urgent need to answer it, ignoring and not paying attention to the person next to us.

It is getting usual to see families and couples using their cell phones, in the restaurant, in the subway, in waiting rooms, in the office. Without realizing it we are experiencing a behavioral addiction of having a cell phone at hand, the experience of nomophobia, something we cannot  live without it, up to the extreme of feeling  fear of, or anxiety for not having it. Who has not had the compulsion to constantly check the cell phone, to watch videos in the social networks, to post photos, or anything else that distracts us and alleviates our need to watch the cell phone screen? I confess with shame I have experienced that.

“Among partnered adults in the U.S. – that is, those who are married, cohabiting or in a committed relationship, roughly half (51%) say their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their cellphone while they are trying to have a conversation with them”

Dating and Relationships in the Digital Age

Technoference & Phubbing

How do we describe this phenomenon? Researchers use the term technoference to describe the interruptions in relational interaction that can occur when technological device usage intrudes on or interrupts everyday social relationship interactions. A related and more popular term is phubbing which describes the habit of snubbing someone in favor of a mobile phone. It results from the combination of the words phone (telephone) and snubbing, referring to the fact of ignoring someone when paying attention to the mobile phone instead of talking to that person face to face. Both terms technoference or phubbing relate to the same concept also as a by-product of a host of obsessive or compulsive use of technology. [1]

There has been a substantial increase in research studies devoted to technology interference in relationships to find the causes that originates this behavior. Form a scientific perspective, there are several sociological and psychological theories to analyze and comprehend these social behaviors. One is the social exchange theory which studies the social behavior in the interaction of two parties that implement a cost-benefit analysis to determine risks and benefits. It envisions social interactions as an exchange in which the participants seek to maximize their benefits. It maintains that people seek fairness in social relationships and that fairness exists when each party in the relationship has the same ratio between what is given and what is received.

For example, Miller-Ott and Kelly (2015) found that when partners used their cell phones during intimate times, expectancies were violated, and most of these violations were perceived as negative. Considering the social exchange theory then, cell phone usage violations might be perceived as an increased cost to the relationship, especially when they create conflict or a decreased benefit to the relationship. [2][3]

All human communication and interaction are done through symbols, while at the same time inferring the relationships and roles with others through their interpretation. On that sense, face to face or online communication is symbolic, and we continuously evaluate each other and the relationship through these symbols. If it results that the other is using their phone or constantly checking updates or alerts instead of attending to our conversation, this serves as a symbol to us, violating our expectations in the relationship leading to a negative effect. Technology interference in partner relationships shows a grim picture because interruptions can lead to conflict and lower levels of intimacy, which in turn creates lower levels of satisfaction in the relationship. [4]

From the parenting perspective, Radesky and colleagues (2014) found that the more absorbed the caregiver was in their device, the less conversation there was between the caregiver and the child, resulting in some children reacting to the caregiver’s absorption by acting or increasing their efforts to get attention, while at the same time caregivers’ responses to their children were more hostile. A by side effect is that poor parenting quality due to technoference could also lead to potential child attachment problems because it is more likely that they will miss or misinterpret a child’s needs due to a lack of focused attention. [5]

This scenario very probably can create a dysfunctional circular process in the family: children react hostile to parent distraction with technology, and parents in turn react to children’s poor behavior abandoning themselves even more to technology or giving a technology toy to the child to distract each other. The same as my introductory anecdote. Has any one of you had witnessed this situation in the family, in a waiting room, or in a restaurant? [6]

Last remarks

More and more people, although physically close, deviate to phubbing, their minds drift far away from the physical world to a virtual world, inadvertently limiting their relationships, emotional and physical contacts, sensorial perceptions, and life presence. It looks like a dystopian science fiction futuristic scene, but unfortunately it is here now.

The day-to-day technoference and phubbing social behavior is around us. There are the shocking statistics, the extensive research studies outcomes, signaling a red flag that we must take it seriously. It is a call to action to identify the harmful phubbing behavior, to take care of our mental health and our social and parenting relationships.

But let me close with a positive and proactive view. Technology is not bad per se, it is up to us to decide who has the control. The challenge is: I can decide when the right moment and place is to use my technology, do not let the technology to use me jeopardizing my social relationships and mental health. Technology is wonderful but life and social relationships are even more wonderful, priceless, worth to experience them without interference and distraction.


[1] Attrill-Smith, Alison; Fullwood, Chris; Keep, Melanie; Kuss, Daria J.. The Oxford Handbook of Cyberpsychology (Oxford Library of Psychology) (p. 115). OUP Oxford.

[2] Miller-Ott, A., & Kelly, L. (2015). The presence of cell phones in romantic partner face-to-face interactions: An expectancy violation theory approach. Southern Communication Journal 80, 253–270. doi:10.1080/1041794X.2015.1055371

[3] Miller-Ott, A. E., Kelly, L., & Duran, R. L. (2012). The effects of cell phone usage rules on satisfaction in romantic relationships. Communication Quarterly 60(1), 17e34.

[4] Denzin, N. K. (1992). Symbolic interactionism and cultural studies: The politics of interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

[5] Radesky, J., Miller, A. L., Rosenblum, K. L., Appugliese, D., Kaciroti, N., & Lumeng, J. C. (2015). Maternal mobile device use during a structured parent–child interaction task. Academic Pediatrics 15(2), 238–244.

[6] McDaniel, Brandon & Radesky, Jenny. (2017). Technoference: Parent Distraction With Technology and Associations With Child Behavior Problems. Child development. 89. doi:10.1111/cdev.12822.