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The Influence of Technology on Relationships, pt. 2

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

In a time when it seems everyone is on their cell phone, it is important to understand the significant influence that technology has on us. Research has shown that people feel more connected to others simply because of their smartphones. Yet, with the use of smartphones and other technologies on the rise, we also need to create healthy boundaries and balance when it comes to our relationships. Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discuss common sense ways to find this balance in the age of constant connection.


Chris Grace:    Welcome back to The Art of Relationships, I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:    And we are here again talking about all things relationships and the opportunity to sit and visit and just have you join us. We've been talking last time about technology and technology's impact on relationships, technology's impact on society and then importantly, how technology is now become this very critical link that we use for connecting with other people, right Tim? I mean we have now the use of technology that is increasing our connectivity and we talked last time about the number of people that say they feel more connected to others simply because of the smartphone, and we mentioned how the smartphone is now the gadget that has changed ... technological Swiss Army knife.

Tim Muehlhoff:  Technological Swiss Army knife.  

Chris Grace: Yeah, that's exactly right. You know, there's some research out there as we continue with this that talked about how people use these phones and this ..., you know when couples get together, they did a survey just about a year ago now that found that almost 40% of respondents think that they now date more than they normally would because of their smartphones. So they have an opportunity to see, connect, so there's some amazing cool things. Here's a cool one that I think that is also there. They found that 60% of users, they would not date someone whose phone screen was cracked. Now what does that ... ?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Oh my gosh! Really?

Chris Grace:    So why would I look at somebody's smartphone, they don't take care of it, it's cracked, are they really that ... you know, it's almost like looking at cleanliness or the shape of their car. Remember we used to look at somebody's car and go, "Oh, it's a nice car", or "It's a dirty car". Now is it that smartphone's, is it cracked?

Tim Muehlhoff:    I'm so glad I'm married. I have a flip phone. I would not be dating anybody! Oh my word, that's amazing. 
We made the point in the last podcast that we're not anti technology, we're not going back, but we need to understand the deep implications that technology has on us. As we use technology, it uses us and so we need to become comfortable with that and help people to use it wisely and use it to connect with people in some really powerful ways. We were having such a great conversation that we though, "Man, let's do this again", because there's so much more stuff that be can talk about when you get at it.

Chris Grace:    You ended with a question Tim, last time, and one other issue that you're facing, or that we're all facing and it's this, go ahead.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah, so last podcast I mentioned that one scholar said that there's technological natives and immigrants. Immigrants, we remember what it was like not to have any technology like this and natives, this is their DNA. So I was talking about a situation where you are talking to a millennial or somebody who's deeply invested in technology, and that buzzer goes off, that vibration goes off and I loose them and maybe they even take a look at the phone.

I step in and say as a technological immigrant, "Hey, that kind of bothered me. I feel like that was disrespectful. I feel like you're not paying attention", but the native comes back and says, "Well, I'm sorry. That's your interpretation, I'm absolutely paying attention to you and that didn't bother me, it didn't distract me. That's on you, not on me". That's an interesting scenario.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, and so I think Tim, what we would look at and I think the question we would want to ask and I think what they're getting at is something like this. Are you assuming and do you believe that someone who is a native, is assuming their ability and capacity to be a multitasker. Is that really what they're doing? That is, I think this person is responding back to you, saying, "Listen, this is how I operate. This is how I've always been and I can do two things ..."

Tim Muehlhoff:    And I'm good at it!

Chris Grace:    And I'm good at it. Yeah, and just because you are not, just because you haven't been around, doesn't mean ... and I think this is really a great fruitful conversation about what's called multitasking, right?  Multi-tasking is this belief that what? It's the belief that we can do multiple tasks at once. So our brains are designed, we're designed, we can sit here and have this conversation. We can have a podcast, I could be thinking of something else at the same time and I can be even looking at my cellphone, scrolling through some things and I could do it without a loss or any kind of negativity to the relationship, or to my ability to pay attention. And multitasking is a very interesting phenomenon, because bottom line, research is showing it is impossible for us to be good at multitasking, so I want to talk about that.

Tim Muehlhoff:    So what would you say to the native who would say to you, "Well, spoken like an immigrant. You came up with studies saying I can't multitask, well that was shocking. Didn't see that one coming". So is it and again, what do you do in that really weird situation? Let's say this is a parent-child, this is a classic one, where the parent is just saying, "Hey listen, I'm sorry, in essence I don't believe that you're as good in multitasking as you think you are". That's where communication theory can come in a little bit, in the fact that I would say to myself and that person I'm talking about or a parent and a child, "You're going to have to come up with communication rules. You're coming up with your own culture".  So I think, let's say they're just not open to all of the studies that you mentioned, that I find very persuasive, but again, I'm an immigrant. I can at least sit down with that person and we can come up with what we call "constitutive rules". Constitutive rules mean this: what constitutes what in our relationship?

And I would say that I can say to this younger person, "Listen, to me, that's not your full attention when you're checking your cellphone. So could we have times when you and I agree not to do that?" Now in fairness, that person might say, "Sure, I'm up for times like that, but are you up for times when we sit down and it's okay to look at cellphones or we're looking and checking emails, we're talking?" I think the answer to that is, there needs to be room for both, but this is what Paul says. Remember, to the church of Philippi, "I do want you to get into the habit of giving preference to one another," so I do think Chris, eventually if the studies just aren't persuasive to one individual, then I think you sit down and say, "Let's come up with some rules, and they cannot always be my rules, where we're going to have to compromise." That's probably what's going to have to go.

Chris Grace:    I think that's right. I think there's a lot of good ways in which that needs to take place, expectations, all relationships probably need to navigate this. I would say that there is however something that is even more fundamental than this Tim, and that is, this is not really about age. This isn't about native and immigrants. This really has nothing to do even with, you know what this has to do with? It's just simply the way we've been designed, and it's our brain and it goes like this:

Our brain has the ability to think two things at once, even three things and we can do different things, but the brain has been designed and we're not going to be able to go against this. This is design, this is who we are, and that is, we have a memory of just one thing. That is, we focus and concentrate on one aspect, to the detriment of the other. So we can switch, but the problem is what we call "switch costs," and switch costs are the critical issue. So here's the studies that show this, with young kids, with anybody of any age.

We put them in a car and we let them drive in a car simulator and they just drive for five minutes. These simulators are very realistic, they get done and they ask a serious of questions. "Hey, how did you enjoy your drive?", "You stopped at all the right stop signs, stoplights, you saw this you saw that, but we had some other questions. Did you happen to notice the billboards?", and they say things like this, "Oh!" Well, they remember seeing about seven billboards, where they actually saw ten. Okay, so now there are about seven.

The average person couldn't recall a number of those billboards, even what they said. And then they do something intriguing and interesting, they put them back in this car simulator or they have another group of people in the simulator, so that they're not bias, and so here's a new group and now they're driving and they just simply have them have a conversation on a cellphone. It's through the speaker, they're not holding the cellphone. They're just in a cellphone conversation through their car computer whatever, and as they're driving for five minutes, they're having to engage with somebody on this phone conversation.

They get out and they're asked this question, hey, most people by the way did have a slight reduction in response time, but they hit the red lights correctly, they stopped, they did everything, but there was an amazing difference between the group. They brought them out and said, "Hey, by the way, did you happen to notice any of the billboards?", and there was literally a look of like, "Uh, I didn't see any billboards." Not only did they not see the ten billboards, even recognize like the others did about seven, they couldn't recall a single content of one.

Okay, the twist? There's a camera inside that car simulator that's focused on the eyes of the driver, okay? So the eyes of the driver show every billboard that was passed, was looked at by the driver. They looked at the billboard. They recalled none of them when they were on a cellphone. What does that say then in relationships? People say this, "I look at you. I'm watching you", but if my mind is somewhere else, guess what's going to fade away? I'm not going to remember. They're not going to remember this, so the idea that we have switch costs, is really what's kind of coming into play that says, "I might watch you, but if I'm distracted, my brain is going to recall that which I'm really thinking about".

If I'm listening to a lecture, I can think about, I can read a book. Tim, I don't know about you, I can read a book and think about something else and I'm going to remember what I was thinking about, not what I'm reading in the textbook. Not what I'm driving and looking at, so that's switch cost, right? Shallower thinking, weakened concentration, reduced creativity, and then this heightened stress. That is what happens when we switch back and forth between ideas.

Tim Muehlhoff:    See I find this very persuasive, but this is immigrant to immigrant. So one thing that discourages me and here's I think where I want to go with this application wise. We brought in one of the top technological people to Biola University and she did a Chapel service. My wife actually works with Chapel programming here at Biola. I was so thrilled that a couple of my kids were in Chapel. Afterwards, it's like every immigrant in the room was like, "Finally, somebody speaking truth," right? And she had studies like you had, it was awesome.

As they were walking out, we grabbed certain people and asked then what they thought, and Chris, to a person, it was "Blah, blah, blah, ya, yadi, yadi, yadi", right? So here's I think the application point would be twofold. One, we do need to stay teachable. We already said we're never going back. We're never giving up our technological Swiss Army knives, but let's be open to not only research, but the prompting of the Spirit. Because here's what really concerns me. If you were to go through the Old Testament and ask what spiritual discipline do the Scripture seem to say is the prime one? They would say meditation, solitude, and if we're getting anything, remember the last program we mentioned that people would rather have an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts? I'm afraid we're losing biblical meditation, and Chris, I've actually done this in assignment in my class, where we did a technological fast where the first day - and this is just three days - but the first day you have one hour of technology, second day you have a half hour, the third day you have none, but that third day you're to go to the Prayer Chapel here on campus and you're to spend one hour of solitude. And Chris, I used to be the solitude king, I did it all through college. I did the fast with my students. Now the one hour wasn't tough, even the half hour wasn't tough, here's what so discouraged me. I went to our Prayer Chapel, Chris, and I sat there and I'm thinking this is great. I used to do this all the time.

I sit there, to my left is a guy totally asleep, to my far left is a guy texting in the Prayer Chapel and I'm sitting there and Chris, I was good for about fifteen minutes. And I looked at my watch when I was done with like everything and I thought, "I have forty five minutes left", and I had ants in my pants. I couldn't do it. That really concerns me. So I think all of us to the great information that you have on switch costs, we at least need to open to the prompting of the Spirit, that hey, if this is affecting Biblical meditation and solitude, then I really think we need to take a hard look at it and make sure that we are carving out time in our busy lives that we can still do meditation and solitude.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, Tim, I think there's some of these consequences and impact on all of us when it comes to the ability to not only, I think that it's just powerful, that idea of solitude and quiet that the capacity to do that is being diminished in some way to, you've mentioned before, the ability for people to sit down and read an entire book. When was the last time anybody has sat down and taken and of course there are a lot of people who say, "Yeah, but I can get the gist of a book", or "I can pick it up", or "I can summarize it", or "I can skim it", and "I get everything I need" and "Who has time for that?".

But it seems as if it's diminishing our capacity to do that. You know in James 1:19, James talked about this and I think it's a principal. He says, "My dear brothers," remember, "take note of this, everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." You know I think you could almost translate that today. If we were to translate that verse today, I think it would say this, "My dear brothers, take note, everyone should be quick to turn away from their screens, slow to browse and slow to become angry when others are texting and ignoring you," right? It is that idea that there's also some ways in which immigrants can say, "Hold on, I need to become slow to get angry when somebody is maybe texting and ignoring me." Maybe I need to learn what this means for me, but sacred spaces Tim, the ability to find quiet places. We're able to get online anytime and any place and it's amazing and sometimes it feels like that sacred space is lost.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Does it bother you - and I'll make a point from this - does it bother you when a preacher gets up and reads the Bible on his cellphone? Does it bother you?

Chris Grace:    Well, it doesn't bother me. It depends on, what I worry most about, I sit there thinking, man I just hope the technology works, I'm afraid that he might not find it you know, or he skips around and "Ugh!". Why does it bother you?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, it doesn't. It doesn't necessarily bother me, and here's what I think I want to argue. I'm not of the opinion of people saying, "Well I just hate that, he needs to have the Bible in his hands," okay, "I want to hear the rustling of pages." I get that. Here's what I want to argue I think. I think there need to be a combination of both. I don't mind people reading the Bible off their phones, because you know what's cool about that, the Swiss Army knife idea, is the you have your Bible with you every single place that you go.

I would want to have times where you do just sit down and you actually open up a brick and mortar book. So, I think what I want to argue is, there needs to be times when you sit down with a friend and both, you're sitting done and you're both checking email, and you're both skimming and you're laughing and talking and showing each other goofy videos on Facebook, okay, but if that is all you do, then I think we're starting to loose a little something. So let's have a balanced approach to technology. I think that's good. I purposely, when I preach, I do use a Bible. I want that in my hands, but I also use a ton of PowerPoint in my preaching with a lot of videos.

So again, let's not be having overreaction with technology. If you feel like you're all in one camp, like I have some older friends, it's just sad, they're upset that their friends don't call them more, the younger generation. And I once said to a friend, lovingly, "Listen, you get on Facebook. You get on Facebook, you will be exposed to that persons entire life and you'll be as connected as you want to be," and her response was, "Yeah, I don't do Facebook." Well, okay, you just closed yourself off to a ton of natives. So again, I want to have that balanced approach, I think is kind of wise.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, I think that's a good point Tim. I think when people are able to approach this, not from a "it's all good, or all bad", but there needs to just simply be healthy ... I mean that's the way it's always been, right? With all technology it's this notion of putting boundaries around something. So I guess I would challenge couples in this way. People or parents or friends, they need to ask themselves a couple of questions. Are they finding, for example, and is it possible that some of the conflicts, some of the concerns that they're having, could they see that technology is having and playing any role?

And what is the role? It is, maybe it's this role of "Man, this is so positive. It's gotten me to where I'm connected with certain people that I just normally wouldn't," and how important are those? And then just a reminder that, okay, continue to facilitate and work on those and strengthen those and then what are some habits that you're forming, in your relationship when it comes to technology, that you want to keep, but what are some that are beginning to be disturbing? Are you losing some connection points that, maybe this ability to even read the other person non verbally or to sit in quiet, does something and you need to enhance that, simply because the other person is feeling fugged, they're feeling right? They're feeling not, they're feeling ignored.

And so, look at that and see the way it's impacting and then ask these questions. I think you need to say, "All right, is there anything that we've missed recently in things that we've agreed to do? Have I misread this?" or "am I misreading a persons emotions? Am I misreading their heart? Am I getting out their dreams? Am I finding that this is," and if you're using technology to get at that, and you can answer affirmatively, then you're using it probably appropriately. But if you've had times in a relationship where you felt ignored, where you felt distracted, where you've missed their heart. Where you've missed seeing something, you know it's that art of that question too. If we miss that and saying, "You know, did I sense that you are okay? I read this in your heart, I read this in your face. Is everything okay?", and if we're able to do that, then I think we're using this well, but those are good questions.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And let's not be judgemental. Each couple is going to have the negotiate this and maybe there's a couple who negotiates it in a way that me and Noreen would not want to do, but I think we have to back off a little bit of this technological snobbery that the immigrants tend to have of the natives, like, "Oh those poor natives, they don't know how to do intimacy because of all that technology kind of stuff." I would argue that, you know how we advise every couple when they get married, go on a budget for one year. You need to at least know where the money's going.

I would argue that when it comes to technology. At least know how much you're on technology, and here's a great app that a student came up to me and told me about. The app is called "Forest", and when you don't use your cellphone, a tree starts to grow, and when you use your cellphone, the tree dies. So it's interesting to look back and to say, "Okay, this day I didn't have one tree grow, because I was on my phone all day long. This day I actually had some trees that made it all the way to full maturity growth." Again, I think it's good no matter what, if you're a native or an immigrant, you should at least know how much time on technology am I spending, just like a good budget - you've got to know where the money's going.

Chris Grace:    Man, I think that's a cool little device and it's just a reminder of things. You know there are other studies that do something similar, Tim, they call people on a random basis throughout the day and they just simply send them a text and say, "Please respond back what were you doing at the moment you receive this text", and you have to say, "I was talking to somebody, I was in conversation, I was on my phone, I was in ..." and it is very interesting.

Some of these findings, and people are finding it pretty revealing that in many times they were not engaged in a conversation with somebody, they were not talking or sharing or sitting there. Instead they were holding on to this, well, they were probably doing, many of then reported simultaneous use. They had, like you said in the previous podcast we talked about, they had their phones on. They were looking at a certain site, they had their computers open and they're sitting in front of a TV and that was a little bit scary for a number of people who received these texts.

So Tim then, when it comes to navigating relationships, what advice would you give? I think that is awesome, I think having an app like that can begin to show us some things, and they can begin to give us some insight into how much we're using this. Another one here, I hear it would be a piece of advice I would give for parents and for anybody else and it goes like this:

Remember the brain especially in developing children is needing to connect, to form habits, right? Smartphones they're habit forming and so we need to think about the habits that we're forming, right? We need to be intentional about that. As a psychologist, I would say if I had parents hold the line in any of these areas, it would find moments where technology is not used, hold sacred times like dinner, places after eight o'clock and then, in addition to finding sacred moments, I would also say limit the number of multiple screens. Because you see what a multiple screen does, is you go back and forth and you're switching back and forth and that to me, the switch costs, is begin to add up. Let them just have one screen.

So we would always tell our kids, "Huh-uh, hold on, either the phone or the TV. One or the other. You can't do both. Or the computer or the phone, just pick one, right now and stay with that." And better yet, "When we turn this off, let's go read this book."

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah, and I would add to that, I remember reading there was some Jewish scholars who were arguing for a technological fast. This idea of Sabbath, boy, we tend to ignore a ton. We can do a whole podcast on how Sabbath really helps your relationships and yourself, but we tend to blow past any kind of a Sabbath rest mentality. Well, these Jewish scholars were advocating for a technological fast, in other words, on a Sunday or a Saturday, it doesn't matter, to really severely limit your technological use, just to kind of reboot a little bit and I think that's probably a really wise idea.

I also have a friend who's on the Board for American Forests, and the forests have really suffered attendance wise and a lot of them are linking it back to technological reasons. That kids just don't want to go take a long walk through the forest where they don't get cell reception, or any kind of reception. So again, I think to look down at your life relationships and say, okay, holistically where are we at? Are we really skewed in one direction?

I like the idea of a family vacation where you take one day and say, "Hey" ... I mean it will be cruel to say to the kids you can't take any technology, but this day we're not going to take the cellphones, Dad included. And that's the important part I think, is to say, "Hey, Dad includes and Mom included in on this," but let's take a look at a holistic view of your life, how I spend my time. In the morning, is the first thing I do check Facebook? Am I texting in the middle of the night? Is that screen, because you know, sleep experts will say just the glow of that screen does things with your REM sleep capabilities, so a holistic approach I think would be fascinating.

Chris Grace:    I think you're right Tim, one time we went to a family camp and it was out in Catalina and the entire week there was no cellphone coverage and what was most interesting is you got used to it so quickly, but our thirteen year old daughter came back and said, "You know what? I really liked it. You know why?" She said it's because I knew I was going to not be able to use my cellphone and I got so used to it, it actually made me feel more relaxed. I wasn't so worried about everybody and what was going on and I thought, you know what, just in and of itself, there's some powerful benefits that way isn't there?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well I had the exact same experience. I went on a business trip, forgot my cellphone. Forgot it! It's like how in the world could you forget it? Well, I totally forgot it. Now, here's what's interesting. It used to be, and this is me speaking as an immigrant, when I said I'm going away on a business trip, people just knew Muehlhoffs' not accessible. But now with the phone and with your laptop right? So there I was Chris, thinking okay, Noreen knows what hotel I'm at and she can call me if there's an emergency. I do have my laptop, and she can send me an email if I need to. So Chris, I went a whole weekend without the cellphone and I got to tell you, it was really hard that Friday night, that was hard. But the rest of the weekend, I was like, "Man, you know what? I'm just going to relax and enjoy this." I think that's the balance we're looking for. If we're never having those moments, where we go two days or something, a technological fast, then I think we're skewed.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. What a great reminder and a great way to end and it's just the reminder that sometimes in the quietness, sometimes in the stillness is when we sense and know God's presence, right? It's when we feel Him and it's also the same thing in relationships and so to bring that in to our worlds, what a great reminder and a great use and a great balance.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And the Psalmist says, "Be still and know that I am God", now what that stillness looks like I think will be person specific, but we better have some times where we're reclaiming a sense of meditation and solitude before the Lord.

Chris Grace:    Great words. Yep, way to end. Thanks Tim and if you need more information, you want to see a little bit more again, we have lots of resources available for you at our website, come check it out and we'll talk next time.