(Dis)connected: Study suggests technology interferes with couple relationships

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Technology's interference in everyday life -- "technoference" -- appears to negatively relate to relationship and personal well-being, according to researchers.

Brandon T. McDaniel, a doctoral candidate in human development and family studies at Penn State, coined the term "technoference" to describe the everyday intrusions and interruptions in couple interactions that take place due to the technology devices and their always-on and ever-present nature.

McDaniel and Brigham Young University's Sarah M. Coyne have examined the frequency of technoference in romantic relationships and whether these everyday interruptions relate to women's personal and relational well-being, reporting their results online in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. It will go to print in 2015.

"In recent years, studies have been looking at the ways in which media use may develop into problematic or addictive use for some individuals and how this may negatively influence relationships, but we were interested in thinking more broadly about the subject, expanding it to look at all everyday interruptions that may occur due to technology devices such as cell phones, smartphones, tablets, TVs and computers," said McDaniel.

Participants were 143 married/cohabiting women who completed an online questionnaire. The majority perceived that technology devices such as computers, cell or smartphones, or television frequently interrupted leisure time, conversations and mealtimes with their partners.

"It is clear that interruptions would likely be more frequent in a relationship where one or both partners have developed addiction-like tendencies for checking their devices or playing games, but even normal everyday use of technology can potentially cause interruptions -- many times completely unintentionally," said McDaniel.

Overall, participants who rated more technoference in their relationships also reported more conflict over technology use, lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms and lower life satisfaction.

"It's a wake-up call to me because I realized I'm doing this too," said Coyne, associate professor of family life at BYU. "That's insane to say that as a professional who researches this, but we can let these devices overrule our entire lives if we allow it."

Researchers tested a structural equation model of technoference predicting conflict over technology use, which then predicted relationship satisfaction, which finally predicted depression and life satisfaction. By allowing technology to interfere with or interrupt conversations, activities and time with romantic partners -- even when unintentional or for brief moments -- individuals may be sending implicit messages about what they value most, leading to conflict over technology use which can then spill over into negative outcomes in relationships and personal life.

"As with any correlational research, we cannot assume causation," said McDaniel. "It is likely that the relationship between technoference and well-being is bidirectional. However, we would still hypothesize that when partners experience what they perceive to be an interruption due to technology, their views of the relationship are likely to suffer, especially if these interruptions are frequent."

The researchers emphasize that they are examining complex relationships, and that factors beyond technology are likely to be involved.

"Technoference is a simple concept in theory but can be complex to measure," said McDaniel. "It is not only the technology that is to blame for the interruptions; personal characteristics and choice can also have a large, sometimes unseen, role."

Technology should not be viewed negatively in and of itself, he stresses, but due to its often always-on-in-the-background nature, boundaries on its use should be considered.

"We should all stop to think about whether our own daily technology use might be frustrating at times to our family members. Couples should talk about this and set some mutually agreed upon rules. It may be helpful to block out times of the day when they will turn their devices off and just focus on one another," McDaniel said.

Last Updated August 25, 2016