Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships

There’s some possibly bogus research about “How your cell phone wrecks your relationships — even when you’re not using it: U.K. researchers discover that the mere presence of a nearby phone can dramatically affect the way you feel about the person sitting in front of you.” I say “possibly bogus” because these kinds of social science studies are notoriously unreliable and unreproducible.* Nonetheless, this one reinforces some of my pre-existing biases and some things that I’ve observed in my own life and the lives of people around me, so I’m going to not be too skeptical of its premises and will instead jump into uninformed speculation.

It seems like cell phones and Facebook cordon a large part of your life from your significant other (assuming you have one or aspire to have one) and encourage benign-seeming secrecy in that other part of your life. In the “old days,” developing friendships or quasi-friendships with new people required face-to-face time, or talking on the phone (which, at home, was easily enough overheard) or writing letters (which are slow, a lot of people aren’t very good at it or don’t like to write letters). Now, you can be developing new relationships with other people while your significant other is in the same room, and the significant other won’t know about the relationship happening via text message. You can also solicit instant attention, especially by posting provocative pictures or insinuating song lyrics, while simultaneously lying to yourself about what you’re doing in a way that would be much harder without Facebook and cell phones.

Those new relationships start out innocently, only to evolve, out of sight, into something more. Another dubious study made the rounds of the Internet a couple months ago, claiming that Facebook was mentioned in a third of British divorce petitions. Now, it’s hard to distinguish correlation from causation here—people with bad relationships might be more attached to their phones and Facebook profiles—but it does seem like Facebook and cellphones enable behavior that would have been much more difficult before they became ubiquitous.

I don’t wish to pine for a mythical golden age, which never existed anyway. But it is striking, how many of my friends’ and peers’ relationships seem to founder on the shoals of technology. Technology seems to be enabling a bunch of behaviors that undermine real relationships, and, if so, then some forms of technology might be pushing us towards shorter, faster relationships; it might also be encouraging us to simply hop into the next boat if we’re having trouble, rather than trying to right the boat we’re already in. Facebook also seems to encourage a “perpetual past,” by letting people from the past instantly and quietly “re-connect.” Sometimes this is good. Sometimes less so. How many married people want their husband or wife chatting again with a high school first love? With a summer college flame? With a co-worker discussing intimate details of her own failing relationship?

Perhaps relationship norms will evolve to discourage the use of online media (“Are we serious enough to de-active each other’s Facebook accounts?” If the answer is “no,” then we’re not serious and, if I’m looking for something serious, I should move on). Incidentally, I don’t think blogs have the same kind of effect; this blog, for instance, is reasonably popular by the standards of occasional bloggers, and has generated a non-zero number of groupies, but the overall anonymity of readers (and the kind of content I tend to post) in relation to me probably put a damper on the kinds of relationship problems that may plague Facebook and cell phones.

EDIT: See also “ I’m cheating on you right now: An admiring like on your Facebook page. A flirty late-night text. All while my partner’s right there next to me” mentions, unsurprisingly:

A study in 2013 at the University of Missouri surveyed 205 Facebook users aged 18–82 and found that “a high level of Facebook usage is associated with negative relationship outcomes” such as “breakup/divorce, emotional cheating, and physical cheating.”


* If you’d like to read more, “Scientific Utopia: II – Restructuring Incentives and Practices to Promote Truth Over Publishability” is a good place to start, though it will strike horror in the epistemologist in you. Or, alternately, as Clay Shirky points out in “The Cognitive Surplus, “[…] our behavior contributes to an environment that encourages some opportunities and hinders others.” In the case of cell phones and Facebook, I think the kinds of behaviors encouraged are pretty obvious.

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