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Drop the phone and talk to your loved ones

Keeping leisure activities with our families screen-free can contribute to a greater sense of well-being and connection

Your family may feel ignored if you're glued to your devices.
Your family may feel ignored if you're glued to your devices. (Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto)

A 39-year-old male client who is soon going to be a parent told me that his wife had asked him to address his screen time in therapy. “We have been fighting about my phone usage often. She feels I am constantly distracted. She is worried that our baby will have to compete with the phone for my attention. She said that we can never have an uninterrupted conversation as I am constantly looking at my phone or smartwatch,” he said.

Screen time makes its way into many therapy sessions, both in the context of parenting and intimate relationships. We have a term which describes this: “technoference”. Brandon T. McDaniel, a family researcher and scientist, came up with the term almost a decade ago in a paper where he was researching the impact of technology on couples’ relationships. McDaniel described the term in his paper as “everyday interruptions in interpersonal interactions or time spent together that occur due to digital and mobile technology devices”.

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Whether it’s texting, scrolling or responding to an email, these distractions become a part of our personal time and downtime, including weekends, when we are relaxing. Clients have mentioned that they end up checking their phones during a board game night, while watching a movie with family or at meal times, and others around them feel exasperated.

The quality of our interactions has been diluted by the presence of devices. An obsessive itch to check our devices even when we are having a good time, comes in the way of our capacity to be fully present.

I remember a schoolteacher at a workshop telling me how a seven-year-old in a class said he believes that his mother loves her phone more than him. It indicated that the child may be feeling ignored and not prioritised.

The nature of our face-to-face interactions has shifted and often clients talk about how they feel about their parent or partner being selectively present—switching between listening and responding to messages.

Our homes are supposed to be psychologically safe places, where there is certainty, stability, consistent attentive presence and focus. In the last few years, our relationship with our devices seems to have compromised that space, with our attention rapidly shifting between conversations and the device.

In an environment like this, a child, partner or a parent may feel neglected, and wonder whether they or their concerns are not important enough.

My worry as a therapist is that it is impacting children’s development, especially language development. For adults, technoference leads to couples reporting lower satisfaction in intimate relationships to the extent that clients talk about the impact on their sexual and physical intimacy. Clients also talk about how they feel lonely and unseen.

The reality is that when it comes to having conversations, we need some time to feel comfortable with our partner or parent before we can share things. If there are constant interruptions or distractions, the trust we experience and capacity to be vulnerable gets impacted.

There needs to be a gradual building of trust and comfort. We need to believe that our partner or parent is fully invested in listening to us and care deeply for what we are feeling. This can be achieved by the simple act of keeping the phone away and creating a window where there is free flow of conversation.

By mindfully making time for conversations or play and activities that don’t involve screens, we can reconnect with one another and deepen bonds. Our capacity to make our leisure activities screen-free and be fully immersed with our family can contribute to a greater sense of well-being.

The best gift we can give to those we love is our attentive presence.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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