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Special Report: Your Attachment to Your Smartphone Could Be Hurting Your Family

The way we communicate has changed a lot.

Landlines are a thing of the past and smart phones are everywhere. We can get in touch faster and over greater distances.

Lisa and Gabrielle DelPrete are two of millions learning the conveniences of digital devices.

"I have a very close relationship with my daughter, she's my oldest of six kids," says Lisa.

"My mom is like my best friend," adds Gabrielle.

The pair have something else in common: their cellphones. Lisa and Gabrielle have lunch together almost every day and their phones come too.

"My phone is with me and it's usually on the table," says Lisa.

"Right next to me, with the face up," adds Gabrielle.

Gabrielle and Lisa aren't alone and there's a reason smartphones are so appealing.

"Every time you get a text or a somebody likes your information or sends you an email, there's a bit of a dopamine rush," says Aaron Striegel.

Striegel teaches computer science at the University of Notre Dame. He says we use our phones to avoid boredom. To make matters worse, he says humans are terrible at multitasking. If you look away from a conversation to check your phone...

"Generally what they've found is it takes, on average, 15 minutes or even a half an hour to get back into the original task that you were working on," Striegel says.

That brief moment of entertainment may have unintended consequences.

"To our spouse or to our kids, now it appears that that electronic device is more important than interacting with them," Striegel says.

Gabrielle and Lisa say they've felt this first hand. When one picks up her phone at lunch, a distance forms.

"Especially with my mom," Gabrielle says. "I feel like I want to have a one-on-one conversation with her about something important. You shouldn't have your phone out."

"Maybe it would be nice if we could just have a conversation and I could just not pay attention to anybody calling me," adds Lisa.

Moments like these can be especially hard on young kids.

Dr. Ahmed Elmaadawi is the Director of Interventional Psychiatry for Beacon Health System. He says kids need face-to-face interaction to bond with parents.

"Sometimes the bond itself could be disrupted with texting or using social media for exchanging information," Elmaadawi says.

Face-to-face communication is important for developing social skills necessary for building relationships. Those skills are absent in texting and social media.

"If we're sitting face-to-face, I can see you nodding, I can see you smiling or frowning, there's a lot of non-verbal communication that I get when we're face to face," Striegel says.

"Eventually when you try to be exposed to normal relationships, you start to have symptoms that we see in our clinic similar to social anxiety," Elmaadawi adds.

If kids don't learn relationship skills, those anxiety symptoms can increase.

"They actually cannot adapt to the environment around them when they grow up and go to college or [are] having to go to work and meet people or coworkers," Elmaadawi says.

Another reason to put your phone away: Elmaadawi says you could start a cycle of bad habits.

"If the child sees mom on the phone, well now he needs his own phone because this is the only way to communicate with the world," he says.

Elmaadawi says if you want to prevent that outcome, set specific times of the day when electronic devices aren't allowed. He also suggests picking a night of the week to eat as a family.

Lisa and Gabrielle say they might try that next time they're at lunch. Both thought it might help their relationship.

"I think it would make it a lot stronger because we'd be paying attention!" Lisa says with a laugh.

— Katlin Connin, WSBT 22 Reporter

Published originally:
WSBT-TV (Feb. 6, 2017)