Switch it off and switch on to life

By Susan Edmunds

Women are addicted to online contact. But new research finds those who resist a ringing cellphone or a message alert are happier than those tied to technology

Technology dependence is a growing issue - and new research seems to suggest it's more prevalent among women. Photo / Thinkstock
Technology dependence is a growing issue - and new research seems to suggest it's more prevalent among women. Photo / Thinkstock

If you've been out for dinner recently, you've probably seen it happen. You might even have done it yourself.

A couple sit on either side of the table, waiting for their meals to arrive. Phones are perched next to polished cutlery and surreptitious glances are flicked in their direction.

Then, one vibrates.

A hand reaches for it and the conversation is cut short.

Over the past three or four years, relationship counsellors have been hearing from more and more couples struggling with interrupted date nights and family time, which is increasingly being conducted to the rhythm of an email alert.

Many people wonder how to deal with the influx of technology in their lives, says Cary Hayward, the national director of clinical services at counselling provider Relationships Aotearoa.

Personal relationships have to fight to compete with the buzz of a new Facebook message or a fiery Twitter exchange.

"There is increasingly an issue of cellphone invasion of intimate space," says Hayward.

"People set aside time for each other and then one person has the cellphone going off. It's not necessarily calls but texting and Facebook, too. It's breaking up the space in between them."

About 1.65 million Kiwi adults have smartphones and parenting advice sites routinely run reminders to mums and dads that when their kids are trying to talk to them, they should put down their phones.

Hayward says technology dependence is a growing problem - and new research seems to suggest it's particularly a female one.

A new survey by security software company AVG Technologies found many Kiwi women are addicted to the digital connection they get from their phones.

Two-thirds spend at least an hour on their mobile devices each evening, and 62 per cent are finding it hard to separate work and home.

Twenty per cent of the New Zealand and Australian women surveyed checked out potential dates on social media, and one in five has cancelled because of what they discovered.

Ten per cent say they would break up with someone via email.

A similar Time magazine study found 60 per cent of women think their smartphone is the most important gadget in their lives, compared with 43 per cent of men.

Almost 90 per cent say they can't imagine life without it. Most said it was the first thing they looked at in the morning and last thing at night.

Michael McKinnon, of AVG, says he's seen the results in action: "My wife sits in the lounge room in the evening and plays Candy Crush or interacts with friends at the same time as watching a movie. These devices are intertwined with our lives."

A British study by mobile provider O2 found women spent more time looking at their phones than they did at their partners.

Psychologist Sara Chatwin says it's something a lot of people are still trying to manage.

"Because it's such a growth industry, it's something that proliferates before our eyes.

"We're not used to it, and it takes time to factor it into our lives and work out how it fits in.

"It doesn't surprise me that people focus on it, and that other people think there's more focus on it than there should be."

She says people need to set rules, such as not allowing phones at the dinner table, to make sure they retain a balance.

"Being aware of its place in your life is really important. Something I see a lot is how technology has got to be too much, and it does override a lot of normality and become too much of a focus."

But there's good news for those who can kick the habit - or at least follow Chatwin's advice and practice moderation.

Researchers have found that people who can resist a phone ringing or message alert tend to be happier and less anxious than those who can't disconnect.

Chatwin expects it's something we will get better at over time.

"When something's new and fun and a bit techie there's always the danger of becoming a bit focused on it in your life.

"It's fine in moderation but when you lose that moderation you need to address things.

"Just be mindful of the role it plays and keep putting it in its place to keep everything balanced."

- Herald on Sunday

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