You’re home from a long day at work and look forward to sharing the evening with your spouse. What could be better than savoring a glass of wine and looking into his eyes, while catching up on the highlights of the day? (Cue the romantic music and candlelight …)

Your fantasy is jarred back to reality as you sit down on the couch. He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling, effectively leaving you out in the cold. You get out your phone, in a tit-for-tat moment, and begin submerging yourself in the highlights of other people. Every few minutes you come up for air, with a cute story or update on someone you share in common, but it’s not real connection. Although you’re sitting “together”, you’re not having a common experience together or creating any memories that will help bond you together.

What’s going on? Why is quality time getting so hard?

Being online is the expected default. We get pinged, re-messaged, tagged, prodded and poked if we don’t immediately respond online. Our society expects access 24/7 to everyone, no matter what else is going on. And gaming companies, Google, Facebook and other social media giants are studying their users and sending rewards purposely to keep users online longer (see the Science of Screen Addiction for more info).

It’s hard to live “on purpose”. We’re getting used to being interrupted from what we say we really want to do. The average American adult unlocks their phone 52 times a day and at least half of the time, we’re unlocking out of habit, not purpose. Our brains crave the novelty of what’s going on with our “friends” and tell us we’ll miss out if we don’t check in often.

Building a real, face-to-face relationship is work in comparison. No scrolling past comments you’d rather not acknowledge or apologizing for hurt feelings. No quick “LOL” or emoji to end the chat.

“Old-fashioned” listening to understand, then respond takes all our senses. It requires eyes on the other person, hands free from phones and a willingness to be imperfect. It can feel hard in comparison, especially after a long day.

Relationship Audit: Questions to Ask

  • Do we have regular offline times we’ve agreed to focus on each other without distractions, both as a couple and as a family?
  • Does my spouse feel heard? Do my kids?
  • Have we set up family values? Do my kids know them?

Measuring the opportunity cost of being online is a new concept. At what cost does the cute kitten video happen? What else could you be doing, alone or with someone else?

  • When you pick up your screen while waiting in line, you’re not brightening the day of the lonely person in line next to you.
  • When you scroll without purpose, you’re “numbing out” a feeling that’s under the distraction. Maybe you’re feeling anxious, bored or angry and grabbing your screen seems like a good distraction. The problem is, when you’re done, you don’t feel any better. In fact, you might feel worse because now you’re anxious PLUS you’ve spent time you didn’t have on social media.

To get your family in the spirit, at the end of the day, I recommend asking “Whose life was a tiny bit better today because of me?”

Good digital citizenship is something our kids need us to model, yet we haven’t been taught how to use screens with intention. We’re the first generation of parents to raise kids that prefer texting to talking. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not an effective parenting strategy. Your kids are watching you choose technology over relationship. When a parent complains about their kids being on their  devices all the time, I ask questions to determine the parent’s habits and usage, then suggest strategies for the whole family to try.

I recommend putting time limits on all screens, including the adults’. When we put limits on screens, the time becomes more productive and useful. No more aimless wandering.

There are real health issues related to the over-use of screens. “Texting thumb”, “screen neck” and “selfie elbow” are all real smartphone injuries. Then there’s the blue light that smartphones emit that stimulate the body and make it harder to fall asleep.

Perform a health audit regularly. Questions to ask:

  • Do I have a hard time going to sleep?
  • Do I have a hard time waking up?
  • Do my neck, back, thumbs or elbows hurt?

If you answered YES to any of those questions, here are some ideas to help:

  • Charge your screen at night in a room that’s not close to your bedroom
  • Put away your screen at least an hour before bed so your brain can wind down
  • Spend the first 15 minutes of your morning WITHOUT your screen, journaling, walking in nature or planning an intentional day
  • Put the device down and stretch every 30 minutes when using your phone
  • Block off “online” and “offline” times on your family calendar and have everyone in your family promise to be in a common space and available in the offline times

Need help convincing your spouse to get off their phone?

I’ve got just the game–join my Intentional Screens Challenge and learn what you’re currently spending time on. No commitment to changing, just a silly little game with a starting point that you can do together, then share the results with your family.

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