Status update: I am in love with my mobile phone
Published 13/02/2014 | 02:30
One-fifth of relationships now start online, but for established couples, tweeting, texting and social networking are a minefield.
Five signs you're hooked on your phone
1 You text your partner from an adjacent room rather than get up to talk to them
2 The only way you express sentiments of love and affection is via Twitter or Facebook where your declaration "Thanks wifey for breakfast in bed - you're the best" is shared with 1,500 followers.
3 You're so busy trying to find the video function on your mobile that you miss your boyfriend getting down on one knee to propose.
4 No romantic date is complete without checking in on FourSquare, popping a photo up on Instagram and tweeting the restaurant to tell them you loved their triple fried fries.
5 You tell your partner you'll 'call them back' when they're standing right in front of you.
The other day, my husband woke up beside me bleary eyed and the first thing I said to him was: "What is Flappy Bird?" Still half asleep, he looked at me quizzically, no doubt wondering if I was talking in code or had lost my mind.
"Ah, it's a game," I mumbled, more to myself than my bewildered husband, and resumed scrolling through my Twitter feed.
"And good morning to you too," said himself and went off to make breakfast leaving me and my iPhone alone to enjoy our first catch-up of the day.
Most mornings follow a similar pattern. Without fail, the first thing I do on waking is check my iPhone for Twitter, Facebook, emails and news websites. Before I've wiggled my toes into slippers, or greeted my husband with so much as an 'are you putting the kettle on?' I'm already up to date with who's done what or died.
I'm far from alone. A study recently found that 80pc of smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up, but mine isn't just a morning addiction. In the evening, my favourite past-time is watching TV, one eye fixed on the box, the other on my mobile as I chortle along to the witty Twitter commentary from faceless others watching the same show. About two feet away sits my husband, his eyes cast downwards to his own iPhone.
We're as bad as each other, and both laughed when we saw the Valentine's Day card doing the rounds that reads: "There is nobody else I'd rather lie in bed and look at my phone next to." But I have to wonder, is our absorption in our own little tech worlds potentially harming our relationship?
There have undoubtedly been plenty of positives to the arrival of new technologies and the impact they've had on relationships. For many, myself included, Facebook is a vital cog in maintaining relationships with friends who live overseas and WhatsApp and Skype keep me in frequent, cost-efficient contact with my mum. In romantic relationships, the advent of dating websites and easily accessible apps has offered an important alternative means of meeting people for those tired of trying to find love in pubs and bars – some 20pc of relationships now start online.
But for established relationships, is it a little different? The technology – touchscreen phones that place the entire digital world in the palm of our hands – has evolved so fast that most of us haven't had time to establish etiquette boundaries.
The average phone user checks his or her device 110 times a day, with 79pc of adult smartphone users keeping their phone on them 22 hours a day.
My husband, also a journalist, will answer his phones (plural, between us, we have four) at virtually any time of the day. "I might get a call from the office," is his usual preamble before setting his mobile on the table as we sit down to dine. His phone infatuation is such that we even immortalised it in our wedding photos. I sometimes fear he may be among the two thirds of people suffering nomophobia – mobile phone separation anxiety.
But studies show that even the practice of having a phone within eyesight during a conversation can be detrimental.
Researchers at the University of Essex found that when two people were seated at a table discussing a matter of importance, all who did so with a mobile phone in the vicinity felt it impacted negatively on the quality of the discussion.
The research team concluded that the mere sight of a phone, and its associations with a world of online communities and contacts, was enough to make the person talking feel that their partner was distracted, less empathetic and the conversation less intimate.
Cork-based counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O'Reilly (sallyoreilly.com) agrees that technological distractions can impact badly on a real-life relationship. She explains: "A problem I see in couples I work with, as well as individuals, is that technology can feel like an unwanted and intruding third person in the relationship."
She adds: "If the first thing you do in the morning is check Facebook, and not your partner's face, that might be received as hurtful, interpreted as a preference for Facebook over the real life relationship.
"Similarly, if we tap away on our iPad while our partner is next to us feeling ignored, then that is clearly a problem."
Most of us know it's rude to give preference to a handset over a human, but the reason we get so hooked on checking our phones umpteen times a day, rather than just enjoying the present moment, comes down to dopamine.
Brain scan research shows that dopamine, the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter, is stimulated every time we hear our phone cheep with a new message or look down to see a new email.
The unpredictability of not knowing when we'll get a new tweet or find out that someone has 'liked' our latest selfie on Facebook further stimulates dopamine.
On the flip side, constantly checking into an online world can skew our perception and cause social media anxiety. I suspect that listening to me drone on about who has more followers than me or whose holiday/career I'm coveting does little to endear me to my other half.
O'Reilly says the key to successfully integrating your online world with your real life comes down to balance.
She says: "If a couple are sitting next to each other but focused primarily for a time on Facebook or Twitter, ie engaging in activities they enjoy, but know that there's a time to log out and log into the real relationship, there probably isn't a problem.
"In relationships where there is a core foundation of respect, love and communication, there is likely to be an explicit agreement in place about when attention is given to online activities and when not."
She adds: "I'd always urge caution before demonising technology and blaming it for faltering relationships and deteriorating contact because I've found that if there's a problem around lack of attention or communication in the relationship, then it pre-dates the introduction of technology.
"Technology makes it easier for us to do what we want to do. I don't believe it makes us want to do something that would normally offend our personal moral compass."
Just to be on the safe side though, my husband and I used the New Year to introduce a 'phone amnesty' to our evenings. From dinner time to bed time, all phones have to be lined up on the sideboard out of arm's reach. Both of us sit looking longingly at them wondering what Tweets and messages we're missing out on, but at least we're in it together – and sure isn't that what marriage is all about.