July 27, 2023

In Brief: Tech Addiction Threatens Marriages

It’s not only the young who are vulnerable to the time-sucking addiction caused by devices and social media.

Marriage has always been hard, but sometimes new challenges present themselves. Michael Toscano and Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies say that “addiction to electronics” has ballooned as one of the topics married couples in counseling are trying to overcome.

In a recent interview with the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), [professional counselor Greg] Schutte “low-balled” the numbers for us. Of his clients, he estimated that, “75 to 80 percent have something like a tech or social-media addiction.”

The compulsive use of electronics introduces a variety of marital troubles. Some couples, Schutte says, struggle with a porn addiction, despite severe spousal disapproval. Some, using direct messaging, have gone from surreptitious contact into extramarital affairs. Many of his clients suffer from suspicion (“who are you talking to?”), feeling ignored by a spouse unable to look away from the screen, or from lack of conversation, the engine on which relationships run.

According to Schutte, the overarching problem is that, through these devices, spouses create “other lives” that they pop in and out of, where one’s significant other is unwelcome. This breeds suspicion and absenteeism in marriage. “It’s so destructive to build these secret lives on our phones,” Schutte says. “People are finding more ways to do this with more phones and accounts, and it becomes impossible to help [these couples] rebuild trust.”

We’ve only begun to understand in recent years how harmful Big Tech products can be.

In May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning that social media drives anxiety, depression, emergency-room visits, and suicide ideation, calling its effect on adolescents, particularly girls, an “urgent public health issue.”

But the negative effects of electronics are not limited to children and teens. Though the phone addiction of adults has not been analyzed as widely as the problems it causes the youth, counselors such as Schutte see the problem. In an earlier study of 145 adults, James Roberts and Meredith David found that “phubbing” (prioritizing one’s phone over people in one’s presence) leads to greater relationship dissatisfaction among romantic partners.

A new survey of 2,000 married Americans ages 18 to 55 — by YouGov on behalf of IFS and the Wheatley Institute — confirms that a large portion of couples are struggling with smartphone addiction, and that their marriages suffer as a result. This new survey finds also a new “digital divide” in marriages, with low-income couples being most vulnerable to overusing screens.

More than a third of American spouses (37 percent) say that their husband or wife is too often on a screen when they would prefer talking or doing something together. Not surprisingly, this problem is concentrated among the young, with 44 percent of individuals ages 18 to 34 saying that this is an issue in their marriage. More mature couples (ages 35 to 55) are by no means exempt, however, with 34 percent lodging the same complaint.

Toscano and Wang go on to explain the practical effects of overusing phones, manifesting in small misses and big problems.

Phone addiction in marriage has significant repercussions. Happy marriages are fueled by communication between spouses, time spent together alone, and moments of physical intimacy when the children (God willing) are asleep for the night. These ongoing works of love deepen the union between spouses, strengthening them to face difficulty and preserve their marriage until the very end. Unfortunately, with American adults, according to one study, checking their smartphones an average of 344 times per day, these seemingly small but ultimately significant acts can decline.

Indeed, our research finds that phone addiction within marriage is linked to fewer date nights, less sex, and — unsurprisingly — less marital happiness.

This shouldn’t be surprising, they write, because “social media is engineered for addiction.” Devices themselves are likewise addicting, and they again quote Schutte, who says, “Phones need to stop being a way of life.”

The bottom line, they say, is this: “American couples, of high and low income, deserve to know about the danger of smartphone addiction to their relationships.” Your marriage might depend on it.

National Review subscribers can read the whole thing here.

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