You’re driving down a city street and find yourself stuck behind someone going 15 mph below the speed limit. What’s your first thought? That guy needs to get off his phone!

You’re sitting in the stands at a high school football game. You notice that many of the students are not only ignoring the game but are also disregarding the friends seated beside them—because they are busy texting other friends.

You drive past a young boy playing basketball by himself in his driveway … while his father stands nearby, totally absorbed in his smartphone.

Sound familiar? In the last decade, the smartphone has conquered the world. I could make a list of 50 ways that smartphones have improved our lives. But if you’re like me and can remember what life was like before we all got these devices, you may wonder if all the changes are really for the good.

Remember those days when you could go to a movie—or to church—and not worry about being distracted by ringing phones or by the white glow of someone texting a friend or checking Facebook? Remember when people didn’t text while driving?

And here’s one more scene we all see regularly:

You walk into a restaurant and you notice a couple seated near you. You observe that they really are not together because one or both of them are hunched over a smartphone. And you think, How sad that they aren’t talking to each other. It’s a picture of 21st-century isolation.

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Plugged in 24/7

Adjusting to new forms of technology is nothing new. Just think how telephones and automobiles changed our culture. Or air-conditioning. Radio, television, computers, and many other new inventions sparked significant changes in our culture and in the way we related to our family and friends.

But the pace of change since 1995 has been breathtaking. We’ve seen the emergence of the internet and of mobile phones, and then the convergence of the two in 2006 with smartphones. We can now be plugged in wherever we are, 24/7.

The technology is evolving so quickly that most of us are barely aware of how our behavior is changing and our relationships are affected. As one reader wrote after I wrote about this issue a few years ago, “These mobile devices can take over your life.” Another said, “I understand technology has its advantages, but we are being ruled by the technology rather than using it as a tool.”

A number of readers were dismayed at how addiction to the new technology was affecting their marriages.  For example:

  • “I’m usually the spouse waiting for my husband to get off the cell, iPad, Instagram, text messaging, Facebook, or some other game that has him hooked. I’m tired of having my conversations through text messages and would enjoy an old-fashioned conversation face-to-face. But the truth is we barely have anything to say to each other anymore.”
  • “My husband and I have struggled for the last 25 years of our marriage with conversation, but what has happened now is Facebook has taken over. If dinner isn’t ready when he comes home, he’s on Facebook until it is. Every morning he gets up and hits Facebook to see who’s been on. Sadly he does not see it as an issue. And I fear I am not alone in this.”
  • “I am one of those people at the restaurant with her spouse, waiting and feeling lonely. My husband is always looking at his phone, checking his email or his bank account, his Facebook, and his texts. I just sit waiting and thinking to myself, Why am I not good enough for him? Why does he have to be entertained by everyone and everything else? It deeply depresses me and he just cannot understand my point of view.”

Replacing conversation with connectivity

Some people gravitate toward texting or Twitter for communication just as they did years ago toward e-mail—it’s simpler, faster, easier. What they don’t realize is how much is lost in those mediums—emotion, facial expressions, tone of voice, and much more. It can be dangerous to replace conversation with connectivity.

One woman wrote about problems in her marriage: “… many arguments occur because of something that was texted and was misunderstood by one of us. Today my husband texted me after refusing to have a conversation last night. I thought the tone of his text was ugly and didn’t respond. Later he texted me asking why I didn’t respond and I said I would rather talk than text because texting can be misunderstood. His response was ‘I enjoy texting. Speak message. Little emotion. Can get right to point.’”

What a classic quote, and so typically male: “I enjoy texting. Speak message. Little emotion. Can get right to point.” The problem is that real relationships require real conversation and real emotion. Digital connectivity is missing one crucial element: true connection.

“When we text, e-mail, Facebook, and the like, we lose a vital piece of relationships: the emotional connection,” wrote another reader. “Without the sound of our voices, the body language, the touch, we as humans lose what God intended to be a vital part of how we are supposed to relate and a vital part of how we are supposed to receive love and be in communion with others.”

Household rules

It’s not that the technology is inherently bad; far from it—it helps us connect with people in many positive ways. The problem is that so many people are unable to control it. It’s as if they are married to their smartphones.

I received some great tips from readers about the boundaries they were implementing to promote face-to-face communication in their marriages. Here are some highlights:

1. No devices at the dinner table. This was mentioned many times in e-mails. Dinner time should be reserved for face-to-face conversation. There will be plenty of time after dinner to reply to phone calls and text messages.

One family calls this rule “TTT—Timeout from Technology at the Table.”

2. No technology on dates. “My husband and I have made a deal for date nights,” wrote one wife. “He is way too plugged in to TV and his phone. Therefore, when we are out at restaurants, we are not allowed to use our phones unless it is a call from the babysitter. Also we do not go to restaurants that have televisions because he will be too distracted, and I will be mad that he is not totally engaged. We all need to find time daily to disconnect from all the information and reconnect with our families with good ‘old-fashioned’ conversation.”

Another reader said she and her husband leave their phones in the car before they enter a restaurant.

3. When you have something important to talk about, do it in person. No texting or talking on the phone. One reader said, “There is a huge gap in a ‘conversation’ when texting because you don’t fully understand what that person really means unless you hear the tone in their voice or see their face, and a lot can be taken the wrong way, creating bad feelings, etc.”

Love the one you’re with

All these boundaries establish a strong value for your marriage and family: When you’re with someone, make that relationship your priority. Establishing this value will require some retraining if anyone in your family is addicted to their devices. But keeping them in their rightful place will, in the words of one reader, “open up the door to more intimate communication.”

I also liked the comment from a reader who pointed out, “Anything that becomes a necessity has the ability to become an idol.” In other words, you can become so attached to your smartphone that it basically becomes the most important thing in your life, something you worship.

“Life is too short,” this reader said.  “Let’s not invest what little time we have in meaningless endeavors.”

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