A new study offers evidence that smartphone use can actually increase communication between romantic partners. Being dependent on one’s smartphone, however, leads to lower relationship satisfaction and reduced affectionate communication. The research was published in Mobile, Media & Communication.
More than just a communication device, smartphones have become sophisticated tools for accessing the internet, playing video games, and connecting with the greater world. Study authors Matthew A. Lapierre and Benjamin E. Custer say that these features make smartphones wholly different from earlier cellphones. Notably, the vast majority of adults use smartphones, and the devices have been linked to depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Moreover, there is mounting evidence that smartphones may be crippling our communication with others, and hurting our interpersonal relationships.
But it appears that smartphone use may not be the main problem. Emerging in the literature is the idea that smartphone dependency is associated with negative outcomes — not smartphone use. Lapierre and Custer wanted to explore this idea by zeroing in on what it is about smartphones that sabotages romantic relationships. Specifically, they wanted to see how a person’s smartphone activity affects their romantic partner communication.
The researchers recruited a sample of 433 young adults who were currently in relationships and saw their partners on a daily basis. The respondents, recruited from across the U.S., completed surveys that asked them questions about how they used their smartphones on a typical day. The questionnaires additionally measured smartphone dependency using 15 items (e.g., “I panic when I cannot use my smartphone.”). They also assessed relationship communication, differentiating between communication using media (emailing, texting, phone calling), face-to-face communication, and affectionate communication.
As expected, the young adults with higher smartphone dependency reported less affectionate communication and lower satisfaction in their romantic relationships. Smartphone use alone, on the other hand, did not appear to be detrimental for relationships. The researchers found instead that subjects with greater smartphone use actually reported more communication with their romantic partners. Furthermore, the more subjects reported using media to communicate with their partners, the greater their partner communication.
“In other words,” Lapierre and Custer express, “rather than hampering how much we connect with the people that we love, smartphones can help us stay in touch with these loved ones and potentially engage in more communication that is causally linked to increased relationship satisfaction (see Floyd et al., 2009).”
The researchers emphasize that every type of smartphone use they assessed (i.e., media, person-to-person, social media) was linked to increased smartphone dependency. But when the influence of dependency was taken away, smartphone use appeared to offer communicative benefits within partnerships. “The range of communicative capabilities associated with smartphone use should help individuals send flirtatious texts to their romantic partner, call to offer a quick “I love you,” or video chat to exchange nonverbal cues,” the authors illustrate.
Overall, the findings suggest that smartphone use on its own does not hamper our ability to connect meaningfully with others. Rather, smartphone dependency is the underlying issue that can harm relationships.
According to Lapierre and Custer, it is unclear exactly how smartphone dependency harms relationships. The authors suggest that smartphone dependency leads to heightened stress, which then affects how engaged we are with those around us. The researchers suggest that future longitudinal research should explore the interplay between smartphone dependency and relationship outcomes over time.
The study, “Testing relationships between smartphone engagement, romantic partner communication, and relationship satisfaction”, was authored by Matthew A. Lapierre and Benjamin E. Custer.