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The Influence of Technology on Relationships, pt. 1

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

We are in the age of constant connection. It's not that technology is bad, the problem is that the poor use of it can negatively impact our relationships. While technology makes it easier to connect with those who are far from us, if not used wisely, it can also make it more difficult for us to stay connected with those who are near to us. In today's podcast, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discuss the pros and cons of current technology and how they influence our relationships.


Chris Grace:    Welcome to The Art of Relationships Podcast, with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff-

Tim Muehlhoff:    And Dr. Chris Grace (laughs)

Chris Grace:    We are here again. Thanks for tuning in and listening. We have an opportunity every time we do this podcast to just talk about relationships and the art of relationships and it is really fun, Tim, just to spend some time hanging out, visiting about these topics and issues. One that's come up and I think we want to talk about today is the issue of technology [crosstalk 00:00:33] and technology's impact on relationships. So, let's tackle that one, what do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah that sounds great.

Chris Grace:    Yeah you know there are some stats and some data out there and we should probably make it clear up front that you and I both agree that technology has an amazing way of impacting relationships in a positive way. This isn't going to be a bashing against technology ... It's not technology, it's the use of technology that we want to really talk about today.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah because we're not going back. I mean I think we realize that. We're not going back to where we get rid of technology, but I bet you our listeners are broken up into two different groups. One group is what they call technological immigrants. That would be probably us, who can remember when we didn't have the Internet, or we didn't have all this social media. But then there's also what they call technological natives and those are our listeners. Millennials, you know. Twenty-somethings. This has always been part of their DNA.

    So, we're not looking to pick a fight with technology. We think it's of a great use, but with anything that has great potential there are some harms and there are some good suggestions on how to make it work for you rather than against you.

Chris Grace:    Yeah and the numbers are just staggering when it comes to impact and use. So let's just start with some of those numbers real quickly and then respond to this. It's fascinating. They talked about the gadgets that changed the world.

    For example, the telephone changed the world, right? It was listed on the top 100 things that changed the world. The telephone's number 7. The light bulb was number 10. The personal computer was number 5. T.V. was number 3 and the number 1 gadget that changed the world was the smartphone. So, that's amazing. That was put together by Popular Mechanics who've been tracking these things for a long time. They find smartphones now sit in close to almost 70% of American adult pockets. That is-

Tim Muehlhoff:    Wow.

Chris Grace:    70% are going to have one and then four out of every five phones purchased today in the United States is going to be a smartphone. Here is what it's used for. Tell me if you can add any to this.

    It has now replaced everything that used to be a gadget that was separate. We asked students last week what did they use it for and here's what they use it for, well? A camera. And so digital cameras have now faded and are dropping in sales because, right?

    So they use it for a camera, they use it for an alarm, they use it for a clock, they use it for a music player. The iPod, by the way, is no longer now in production simply because they don't need it. It's now used for other things.

    A Bible, right?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Uh, to launch missiles.

Chris Grace:    (laughs) To launch missiles. To have a news source. Remember I heard you talking earlier today just about a GPS and it's used that way, right? To track calories, to track steps. Health. To buy stuff. It's boarding passes. People are now carrying-

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah!

Chris Grace:    So one guy did this. He collectively added up all of the individual devices that were now being replaced. So they say today we've replaced the phone, the MP3 player, the point and shoot digital camera, the GPS, the alarm clock, the flashlight (laughter) the handheld gaming system, the guitar tuner, the voice recorder, the dictionary, infrared remote and web conferencing device and so he said each of those together weighed more than eight pounds and were worth over $1200 if you buy each of those now when your smartphone exists.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Wow, wow, wow. So, it's like a Swiss Army Knife. You know what I mean? It really ... like a technological Swiss Army Knife. Hey, you know what else it's done? It has completely changed horror movies. Now every single horror movie you are about to call the police. You're about to get help and ... low battery. It has (laughter) changed all horror movies. (Laughter) Well, Chris, that's amazing, though!

Chris Grace:    The numbers are shocking and here's I think the ultimate question that we need to ask. When we talk about the impact of this kind of technology then in society, on culture, we really focus in and we're going to narrow in of course on relationships.

    And so, just to repeat, it's not the technology that's really the moral or the immoral, the good or the bad, it's the use of the technology. So Tim, as we talk about this, one of the things that we have to do is find some cool things that are out there on its impact so go ahead. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    So technology ... As we use it, it uses us. And again, people have observed this forever.

    There's a guy named Marshall McLuhan. He's a media scholar. And he broke up all of human history into different epochs. The very first epoch was the oral epoch, right? We told each other stories face to face, think of the New Testament. That was Jesus speaking in parables, giving the Sermon on the Mount so that people could remember it.

    Then ... I won't bore you with every epoch but then he moves into the ... but there will be a test later (laughter)

    But there's the electronic epoch which again, now we don't need to be face to face. There's no geographical boundaries but he notices how these things really did change.

    You know, Friedrich Nietzsche once used to write out all of his stuff by hand and he simply went to a typewriter and he said that the use of the typewriter changed not only his effectiveness and how quickly he could write but it changed how he thought. And he thought in a much quicker way and we're just talking about a typewriter that some of our listeners are probably thinking, "Typewriter? What's exactly a typewriter?" So, again, we're not anti-technology but we also want to be wise that this is fundamentally changing our interactions, our brain waves as we do this.

Chris Grace:    It is and we're going to talk about the brain and technology 'cause I've kind of been interested in that a little bit. A psychologist in Time Magazine in 2012 did a survey of users in all these different countries and asked them, "How has the smartphone changed their lives?" The most common response is that it brought them in closer contact with friends and family and helped them become better informed.

    So, that's amazing. Almost always, they agreed, 75% agreed that this constant connection was mostly positive.

Tim Muehlhoff:    You know, I was part of this group, this just happened awhile ago. It was a group of people and they brought in two communication scholars and they brought in some other people and were talking about friendships. And so we're sitting at this table. And by the way I'm being Skyped in. I'm not even there. They're in North Carolina, I'm back in California.

    And one of the Comm. scholars, I won't mention any names, took a really hard negative view of relationships mediated through technology. And I just said to him, I said, "Listen, I'm being literally Skyped in to this meeting." And one guy piped in and said, "I have a 15 year friendship that is completely mediated through FaceTime.

    And so I loved, Chris, and again, we can talk later about the fact that I don't have a smartphone. That'd be an interesting thing to talk about. But I text my kids all the time. I do think that technology can really foster some great virtual communities and it can foster some really deep friendships and geographical distance means nothing now. We are in the electronic age that McLuhan talked about.

Chris Grace:    We are, and I think as that happens and as it grows. One of the things that we want to do is stay on top of some of these subtle impacts, some of the more well-known ... Just the idea of the number of people who have this obsessive need to remain connected, right? So 60% of users do not go an entire hour without checking their phone. They cannot do it, right? And so on that, more than half, they check their phone while in bed!

    And so, that idea, before going to sleep, upon waking and by the way, if you talk about numbers and lower that to the ages 18-34, that number is around 74%. They're checking it throughout the night, at different times in the morning and as they wake up.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And now we know about sleep stuff, right Chris? How much you break the sleep pattern?

Chris Grace:    It's crazy.

Tim Muehlhoff:    But listen, I think that's also positive. There's some times when I'm laying in bed with Noreen and I would just text her, and I'll just say, "Hey, in the mood question mark, emoji?" And I don't even know what an emoji is because I don't have a smartphone. What you're bringing up, Chris, needs to be talked about, right? The fact that we always have to have the cell phone with us and that it's hard for us to be alone with each other.

    Let me mention an interesting study. So this one study was done by researcher/social psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and this is what they did. Chris, this blows my mind. They took individuals and they said, "We're going to put you in a room for 15 minutes and you're just going to be alone with your thoughts." I mean, I think most of us would say, "Awesome! It would be great to just get some time to catch my breath and to think about things." But people didn't like it. So they gave them the option that if you want to, you could actually shock yourself with a mild shock just to interrupt the boredom; to interrupt the fact that you being alone with your thoughts was not a positive thing.

    This is what blows my mind, Chris. 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose to inflict on themselves a mild shock at least once during this 15 minute period. So one researcher said this. I thought this was interesting.

    "I find it quite surprising and a bit disheartening that people seem to be so uncomfortable when left to their own devices that they can be so bored that even being shocked seemed more entertaining."

    Now that's the negative side, right Chris? Is when I don't have this technological life-line. And I'm just alone with my thoughts that I can't even go 15 minutes without wanting to interrupt that with an electric shock if that's all that's available to me.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, you can just imagine what that means then for relationships and the way we navigate those, right? If somebody's making me bored or I'm not being entertained at the moment, or something distracts me, in essence what I'm going to do is I'm going to tune out of a relationship that would normally be something you sit with. You just kinda ... You can enjoy the silence together. And you know, we're losing that ability to be silent together whereas things can come up and different ideas and notions that strike us but instead, we're filling that time.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Noreen and I noticed we got into a really bad habit. We often will sit with our laptops out, T.V. on, so semi be watching T.V., semi be talking, but the whole time Noreen and I are checking emails and flipping through things so we have noticed, Chris, that when we do put everything away, turn off the T.V. and make a cup of coffee that we sit there, there's that really uncomfortable beginning point.

    And here's what I find that's negative for me, Chris. So when I'm online, I am zipping through things. I'm checking the Detroit Free Press. I'm checking the Detroit News, CNN, MLive, I'm checking FOX Sports, I'm checking, of course, my emails. And it's moving at light speed. I'm not even necessarily reading every article. Who has the time to do that?

    So then, when I stop and it's me and Noreen having face time, she of course moves at a much slower speed than my ability to zip all over the Internet. So I find myself just getting a little bit impatient. Like hey, let's get to the point of the story that is kinda which is horrible in communication and in marriage ... So I find myself becoming technologically impatient with face to face slow, wandering human interaction.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, Tim, now you're starting to get into what this worrisome data is coming out into light, right? I mean, here's the problem and tell me if you feel like this is it. There is a known psychological phenomenon with the brain that when we find somebody that we feel trustworthy, that we connect with, there's something interesting and powerful and field-of-attachment. This idea of oxytocin is just this almost like it gets released during times in our brains when we're connecting with other people that we like. It's a bonding agent. Mothers and children and fathers and children and caregivers respond and react with higher levels of oxytocin when in contact with somebody like a child and the child does the same.

    Well it's that same spike in oxytocin, that push, when we are dealing in social media in connecting with other people. We still like, during social networking, to have this almost connection and attachment because that's what the brain is designed to do. So there's this spike.

    In fact, one researcher found a 13% spike in oxytocin during times of which social networking just triggers that release. So, we like that spike. We like what that feels like. That addictive feeling is, "I like this," so now you're going through, you're looking at these websites. You're looking at this email. You're looking at this. You hear somebody and now it's like, "This is awesome. I like this. I'm connecting. I'm with people. It's fast." And we seek more of it. And so now, that becomes this addictive need to have more.

    Why would people care about checking in at night before they wake up? Because they like the way it makes them feel-

Tim Muehlhoff:    It's a drug.

Chris Grace:    It's a drug! And then now you're face to face with somebody personally. It's great, but it's not as fast. It's not as addict- Why are you going through so quickly trying to get to these sites and trying to get to email and trying to get to this update? Trying to get to a status update? And trying to read what somebody else did? It's because it provides for us this surge, this feeling of, "I like, I'm attached, I'm connected."

    And by the way, it's the same thing that makes us feel, it's that generosity and trust feeling. So all of that to say, you just have to wonder what is the impact-

    And so guess what couples have reported, Tim? They did this really cool study, by the way, by Pew. Pew in 2014. It's called Couples, The Internet and Social Media. Smartphone attachment, what you were describing, can actually create romantic friction when one person feels ignored in favor of what is on their partner's screen. So they begin to feel it-

    So 25% of married couples in this Pew Research that were married or partner respondents, said that their spouses or significant others' phone use was distracting. Now if they were ages 18-29, more than 40% reported feeling ignored. So what is it? Why? It's because, Tim I think you were describing. "I like the feeling of what's going on here, I'm zoned into this, I'm getting this kind of feedback and almost great feel, emotional feel that I don't always get when I turn.

Tim Muehlhoff:    So let me ask you a quick question and then I have a study I think really fits well with what you just said. But so, Chris, couldn't there be a positive thing? Like this.

    So two weeks ago I was traveling. I had a layover and I'm sitting with Noreen and she couldn't talk but we were texting. We actually were like texting for like 20 minutes. Couldn't that be a positive, though? Because is oxytocin being delivered during the texting?

Chris Grace:    Oh yeah, what this study found is that networking, connecting with people, that's a good thing. There's nothing negative or wrong with that.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Good, okay. That's good.

Chris Grace:    And I think the difference is when the other person, when we're in the same room and we're connected is now seeking something more and isn't getting it and is actually filling, you can call it fubbed, right? Snubbed by phone, right? (laughing) The fubbing is this word that's going on. You feel snubbed by the use of a phone that someone else is using so that word's come-

Tim Muehlhoff:    And here's an amazing thing about that, Chris. There's a study from researchers at the University of Southern Maine who did this. They took groups and they had them do this task. Now they weren't allowed to use the phone during the task. But they wanted to see how much the phones psychologically distract you.

    So, there was a group of individuals. They had their phone on the table but they weren't allowed to look at it. So they are now doing this task and they later reported the mere presence of the cell phone on the table. And, by the way, some of them the cell phone was off. But the mere presence of it totally distracted them.

    So, going back to what you said. You mentioned a person who had the cell phone in the pocket. The mere presence of that cell phone is distracting me because I'm thinking about what. Turning it on? I'm thinking about what's happening that I'm missing out on everything? Right? So the presence of that technology can be really distracting.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, Tim, I think it goes back to some older research that where the presence of certain items in a room influenced people subtly and as a social psychologist I love the studies where 30-40 years ago some of the early studies showed that the mere presence of a weapon, like, for example, a gun, actually caused people to feel slightly more aggressive.

    And so these studies were done that they were looking at people, their responses, how they might be aggressive towards somebody or even shock somebody and just simply put in the mere presence of a weapon in the room.

    Now, some of these studies have gone on and they've looked at some problems with that but it is interesting that we have some

Tim Muehlhoff:    So Chris, you know for Christmas, my wife and my kids got me an authentic samurai sword (laughs). It's in our living room.

Chris Grace:    It is just funny how we are influenced by these things and how they draw us. I think that the issue with phones like that, Tim, is not only the presence but there's something both visual but there's something auditory that is, we hear the beep. We hear the shake. We sense it. So all of those things are responding to that.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And Chris, I have an uncontrollable response to that. So it really ticks me off when I'm talking to a person and I hear that ting go off and I know I lose that person just for a second. I get mad! I actually get upset.

Chris Grace:    That's an interesting moment. What we do, I believe at that point, is something very important. All of us are designed with this amazing capacity to read the emotions and read each other. So you and I do this podcast, we sit here and we look at each other, we talk, we visit, you know, we're not sitting in two opposite rooms, we're interacting. And it's designed for us to read each other's emotions.

    So in any relationship that's what we're doing. We're reading, sensing, processing. What we get, that moment when there's a slight distraction and you've felt like you've lost the person is because what they've done is their ability to pay attention to you, which used to be now what you thought was 100%, it never really was because we have thoughts going on, but it now has been decreased it and we sense it. Their eyes might glance away. If somebody glances away-

Tim Muehlhoff:    Or they check their phone. And here's what bugs me the most about that, Chris, is ... So I'm literally getting bumped. I'm getting bumped by anything. This could be AT&T, "You have so much data left." This could be, "Hey, there's new chocolate pretzels." So I get bumped by anything momentarily and I take that personally. And I think that's because I'm a technological native, right? I'm an immigrant. It bothers me, but the other person is like, "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean any disrespect by that." So it is interesting that I do tend to interpret that as being disrespectful.

Chris Grace:    Oh, well. It's even worse than this, Tim, as far as disrespect. I believe this: some researchers are saying that children, the increasing amounts of depression and anxiety among children have been on the increase. You know why? Because of that very thing. And here's what it means. There is probably a greater lack of connectedness, right? And that is because of people's attention. How do I communicate to you that we are connected? How do I communicate to anybody else that they're of value to me? And I pay attention. And so being attentive versus being distracted is creating more and more of an impact.

    We become more human when we connect with each other but we become less human when we ignore each other. And so, there is some speculation that the increased amounts that we're finding in children is about a lack of connectedness, a decrease in close connections simply because when people are then being distracted, not paying attention, it communicates. It's transferring either like or dislike. And what kids are interpreting your lack of attention, Tim what you're doing when someone doesn't pay attention to you, or looks at that phone or tries to get that status update, is, you know what they're saying? "I don't like you."

    Or, what they're saying is, "This is more important than you right now."

Tim Muehlhoff:    But they wouldn't say that. If I were to confront them, they would say, "No, come on, you're reading -

    We had a family get together happen, and these are people you don't normally see, right? And we're all together in a room. And I'm not going to name names, but one person in the room. I see them, they're looking at their phone watching something. So during the break, I went up and sat next to them and I said, "Hey, show me what is more important on your phone than people you haven't seen in like 6, 7, 8 months. And Chris, it was two monkeys scratching each other. Seriously! I kid you not. Two monkeys scratching each other and I said, "So that is more important than people that you haven't seen?" And by the way, I said to him, "You need to know what kind of message you're sending to the adults in the room." Because again, that's the immigrant native thing. The adults look at that and say, "You're just bored and you don't want to be here." To which this child would have said, "That is just not true."

    But it's going back to what you were saying. "I need that little hit of what - oxytocin?"

Chris Grace:    That's exactly right. And Tim, I think you're getting at something that really happens that's very, very important and it goes like this. And I believe we find this in a lot of cases in that situation and it's this: I believe what happens is, one researcher has done some studies looking at the way that we transfer like and dislike to other people and the whole field of research says it's done by non-verbals. And so what you're saying is that this, what's known as this implicit transfer of affection. Implicit transfer of affection means it's not explicit, it's implicit and that affection means I like you or I don't like you. And that's what's happening.

    Every conversation we have with somebody we can communicate to them like or dislike. How? How do you communicate like at an implicit level? Well, you pay attention to them! You listen to them, you engage with them, you smile when you're supposed to. You're in synchrony. But how do you communicate dislike? I'm watching myself and this is more important. Implicitly or transferently and I believe what couples need to really start to grab hold of or just people in general: roommates, friends, parents to children is understanding that implicit transfer.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Okay but answer this question for me. I've gotten hit with this. This is what people have said to me. I think you have now a disagreement between immigrants and natives. And this is how it happens.

    I'm having a conversation with you. You hear your phone go off, you break eye contact and you actually take a look at it. Okay? I interpret that, as an immigrant, as disrespect. I've had people say to me, millennials, "Well that's not my fault that you interpreted it as disrespect. No disrespect was given and I am absolutely listening to you! I'm absolutely paying attention to you."

    How do we resolve that?

Chris Grace:    Well, I mean, I think it's such a good question, let's do this. Let's do another podcast on that very subject. Because this one has got to be technology one, we'll have technology 2.0 just to stay- let's continue this podcast I think that is a central question that comes down to how do we understand each other and this divide that's only going to get bigger?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah, that's right.

Chris Grace:    Well.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Man, great stuff.

Chris Grace:    Let's keep going.

Tim Muehlhoff:    I'd like to have gone but my phone went off saying we were done.

Chris Grace:    (laughter) Yeah, I got an email. Did you get that again 'cause I'm really not listening or paying attention. Listeners, if you're interested, we have a lot of material on our website. We have events, we have other tools we have things like blogs and classes and things like that. So go to and check out all the resources that are available out there, some other podcasts as well and we'll continue this conversation. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah, this is important. This isn't going anywhere.

Chris Grace:    So, hey, thank you so much for joining in and listening to us and we'll talk to you next time.