This is a conversation with Chrissie Russell, freelance journalist, about some of the positive and negative impacts that technology can have on our relationships. You will notice that I caution strongly against vilifying technology – partially because I have deep love of my own iPhone!!
Q: What are the negative impacts of technology on a relationship if a couple sitting together tap away on twitter? What if the first thing you do in the morning is check Facebook?
As your questions suggest, a problem that I see in couples work as well as in individual work is that technology can feel like an unwanted and intrusive third person in a relationship. If the first thing we do in the morning is check Facebook and not our partner’s face, that may be received as hurtful. It’s possible that our action might be interpreted as a preference for Facebook or Facebook ‘friends’ over the real life present relationship. Similarly, if we tap away on the iPad while our partner is next to us feeling ignored then that is clearly a problem.
That said – it isn’t quite that simple, so I urge caution before we demonise technology and lay the blame for faltering relationships at the digital feet of Twitter. Because what I also find is that when problems arise in a relationship around communication, or lack of attention or affection, these issues usually pre-date the introduction of technology into that relationship.
If the core foundation of respect and love and enjoyment of each other’s company is there and is solid, then technology won’t be the “cause” of any problems. What will likely happen in a relationship that has these core values intact, is that each person will ensure that the other feels respected, heard and loved. There will likely be an explicit agreement in place about when attention is given to online activities and when not. And so a couple sitting next to each other but focussed primarily for a time on FB or Twitter are engaging in activities that they enjoy, knowing that there’s a time to log out of virtual reality and log into the real relationship. If there is discussion and agreement, there probably won’t be a problem.
If, however there is a problem in the relationship that pre exists, then technology will aid, rather than cause, the deterioration of that relationship. If one partner is inclined to give poor quality attention to the other, then technology will look like the cause. If one partner is inclined to cheat, for example, then a dating or cheating website might get the ‘blame’ for what is ultimately that partner’s choice.
In this way FaceBook etc become red herrings and scapegoats. Technology makes it easier for us to do what we want to do. I don’t believe that it makes us want to do something that would normally offend our personal moral compass. The bottom line is that someone who has a poor record of taking responsibility for their actions will blame the internet for making options available to them.
Accept this excuse at your peril.
Are there pros? Can technology promote relationships (online dating, staying in touch with friends abroad)? And are there cons: is it without drawbacks? Is it real, and is there a danger that its too easy to just walk away? (eg if someone says something you don’t like on Twitter you can block them, whereas in real life you might have to engage and reason with them…)
The positives are many. I myself use Facebook in particular for keeping in touch with beloved friends and relatives abroad. It’s not the only means of communication I have with them though.
And there is the key – balance.
All social networking sites have their limits and so we don’t get the full 3D nature of human interaction on FB or Twitter. For some people that is a welcome relief. The more introverted people among us enjoy the quality of online interaction immensely and there are several valid reasons for that. Our technology allows us have more instant control over who we speak to and when. We can be witty, entertaining, knowledgable etc. without immediate personal feedback and so it feels less risky to communicate this way. The written word is very powerful, and can be edited before making public. So we can be ‘correct’ as well! It looks reassuringly convincing to see something ‘in writing’, so we can sell our ideas more easily without having to stand up and make public speeches. In this way we can pace ourselves and be safer online. If we use it responsibly of course.
Dating websites are hugely popular now and deservedly so. Many people hate the club and pub scene and now there is an alternative. Again, it’s about balance. It’s unlikely that we will maintain a virtual relationship for years, we will at some point feel a desire to meet the person and see what that feels like. In a ideal world, when we meet the person in real life all will be as was sold to us online. The person we meet will have been honest and won’t have invented a persona, photograph etc. I know this happens and that it’s disappointing or even devastating, but again this is not the fault of the technology: this person will have made a choice to deceive.
Alarm bells should ring loudly when we see this happening.
(Dating websites can be abused of course and they are. And there is a sinister side too, where we have people dealing in hardcore pornography and human trafficking, but that’s for another article. Again though, technology hasn’t caused this, the people who use technology in this way have caused this).
So to sum up: what I’m thinking and what I see, is that technology enable us to be who we are and to do what we want to do. It doesn’t change us, but allows us to express who we already are. If we are inclined to deceive, it’s easier to do that online. If we are inclined to dodge responsibility, social networks helps enormously. (Blocking unwanted contacts, lying and so on). If we are inclined to bully it’s an effective tool. And if we are inclined to champion each other, make each other laugh, support each other, share ideas with each other then online technology beats all other tools we’ve had to date.
As with all previous technologies and tools we have created as a society, books to laptops, it can help or harm.
What makes the difference is who is using it.
The resulting newspaper article is here.