I Need to Get This
Mobile devices offer unlimited opportunities to connect with others, but the temptation to stay in touch may be driving us apart.
By Tariq Kamal 02/07/2014
Smartphones and tablets allow their users to instantly connect with friends and strangers, family members and coworkers, lovers and enemies. Web-enabled mobile devices are relatively recent, but, over the past decade, they have been almost universally embraced — and they are causing a drastic shift in the way we engage in relationships, dating and sex, especially among young people.
A recent Harris Interactive/Jumio poll found that 20 percent of respondents ages 18 to 34 had used their cellphones while having sex. That figure dropped to 9 percent for respondents of all ages. The implications are profound. By answering calls, sending or replying to text messages or updating one’s social media status during intimate moments — up to and including sexual intercourse — users run the risk of alienating their partners and slowing down their own emotional growth.
In 2003, hotel heiress Paris Hilton was already on the path to worldwide fame when a homemade sex tape featuring her and then-boyfriend Rick Salomon landed on the Internet. The footage is notable for Hilton’s distant manner — she often appears more engaged with the camera than with her partner. At one point, she interrupts the proceedings to answer her phone. “It all started with the ‘1 Night in Paris’ video and all the parodies that have followed it,” says Michael Porco, a Sierra Madre–based comedian, political pundit and licensed therapist. “Since then, the idea of being on the phone during sex entered the popular culture and our collective unconscious.” Porco explains that the prevalence of this behavior among young people demonstrates a “cool, detached” approach to intimacy and a self-important attitude, both of which can have dire consequences for real-life relationships.
Susan Hollywood Papalia, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, says she has serious concerns about compulsive mobile device users and their partners. “Using devices during sex introduces a prop that is distancing and dissociative rather than engaging and connected,” says Papalia, who specializes in relational life therapy, a counseling method created by Massachusetts-based family therapist Terry Real, author of The New Rules of Marriage. She believes that any person who does so without his or her partner’s consent may be demonstrating addictive or avoidant behavior. Porco agrees, pointing to recent research by James Roberts of Baylor University and Stephen Pirog of Seton Hall University, who showed that compulsive mobile device usage demonstrates materialism and impulsiveness, both of which point to addiction. “People believe they are such an important person that they must be on the phone at this moment. Impulsiveness points to how difficult it is for some people to exercise control and actually put their phone down,” Porco says, noting that cellphone addiction is a malady not yet universally recognized by experts.
Dustin Plattner, Psy.D., a relational psychotherapist and psychological assistant under the supervision of Michelle Spearman, Ph.D., at La Vie Counseling Center in Pasadena, says several of his patients have complained about their partners’ use of cellphones during what should be one-on-one encounters. Plattner hesitates to lay all the blame at the feet of the user. Like any obstacle to intimacy, inappropriate cellphone use is something both partners should take responsibility for overcoming, he says. “I would want to work with both of them and see what is getting in the way,” Plattner adds. “My advice is to communicate with the partner: ‘When you’re on the phone, it hurts me. I don’t know if I want to be connected with that.’” Plattner explains that human beings are built for “connectiveness” — which includes eye and skin contact as well as recognition of faces and voices — and healthy relationships depend on it. Constant electronic communication can help reinforce relational bonds, but they fall short of true connectiveness. “You would also want to hold her, touch her, connect with her in person.”
“In relational therapy we use the word ‘cherished,’” Papalia says. “If you don’t feel cherished in your relationship, then there is probably something occurring that is not making room for all of who you are.” She believes there is no substitute for genuine “eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin” intimacy.
But relationships, for all their benefits, can be difficult and messy. They require us to be vulnerable. And Porco says any interruptions during face-to-face interactions present a real danger. “Being on your phone destroys intimacy. You are not present and connected to your partner but to your own digital world… I prefer people get to the point where they can look into each other’s eyes during sex — admittedly, an advanced move for many. The best sex is present sex.”
Erstwhile online-dating entrepreneur Michael Onstad agrees that compulsive cellphone use is a detriment to relationships, but he believes it’s only one facet of a larger problem. Having tried online-dating sites such as Match.com and eHarmony.com, and having attempted to build two online-dating sites of his own, Onstad, a 40-year-old Pasadena resident and lead software developer for Kaiser Permanente, says technology has failed to satisfy our need to meet new people and start relationships. “I don’t think any ‘system’ can bring people together,” he says. “You can only look at their pictures and feel like you might be attracted to them.”
Last year, he decided to adopt a more old-fashioned approach. He used Meetup.com, a site designed to connect people who share hobbies and interests, to start a group for Pasadena singles in their 30s and 40s. Onstad organizes mixers at local venues and invites the whole group, which now includes about 300 members. The response, he says, has been largely positive. His first event, at T. Boyle’s Tavern on Catalina Avenue, drew dozens of singles. “I feel that’s the direction things are going,” Onstad says, noting that Match.com has begun offering group meetings as well. “Better to meet 10 or 15 people at once and know they’re single. You can talk, get to know each other. If they’re interested, they can go on a real date.” Onstad says mixers help singles avoid the pitfalls of online dating: Promising email exchanges can lead to disappointing in-person meetings, and men tend to be less selective than women, flooding their inboxes with messages.
Lucy Bennett, an L.A.–based reality TV producer, plans to tackle those issues and more in an upcoming Bravo series — Online Dating Rituals of the American Male. Each episode will follow two men as they attempt to find matches and make dates. She says she has observed that our increasing dependence on technology, including mobile devices, is reflected in our personal lives. She appreciates Onstad’s efforts, noting, “You don’t sit at a bar and ask someone to read your OkCupid profile,” but she worries that participants may be trading one “meat market” for another. “There could be a stigma where it’s a bunch of desperate people getting together with nametags. Some people hate that.”
Whatever the mechanism, once a personal connection is made, the task of maintaining it falls on both partners. Porco recommends establishing rules that will ensure mobile devices are turned off or otherwise unavailable during intimate moments. Plattner stresses the need for the open expression of feelings as well as the importance of good parenting: By setting limits on the use of mobile devices in adolescence, he says, parents demonstrate that other social activities, including physical activities, offer better ways to develop social bonds.
Papalia believes that the option of using mobile devices should compel us to seriously consider what we expect from our relationships. “Using technologies with consciousness can be enriching and make our lives simpler, but any world without walls has its perils and can become a source of danger,” she says. “When it comes to mobile phones in the bedroom, all my red flags go up. I’m at a loss in figuring out what possible benefit it brings to human connection.”
“Ultimately, one has to decide what type of sex they want,” Porco says. “If you don’t mind sex that is just about sexual release, then perhaps it doesn’t matter. But if you are looking for more meaningful, connected sex where there is communication and connection, then the phone must go.”