How using your digital devices can impact the health of others.

You know how horrible and harmful secondhand smoke is? Even if you’re not the person smoking, it’s been scientifically proven how badly you are affected when you are near someone who is. Well, it looks like technology is also having a negative impact on the people around us when we’re glued to our digital devices. Now, before you call me crazy, let me clarify—not all the effects are physically dangerous. Some are merely annoying but many can actually be harmful from a mental health standpoint.

Most people have heard of the term phubbing by now. It refers to snubbing someone when you’re paying attention to your phone instead of the person you’re with. Sadly, it’s become quite common, to the point where we expect it to happen quite regularly. But it’s a still an unpleasant experience to feel alone while in the company of others. This behaviour has been proven to impact the self-esteem of the person being phubbed, leaving them annoyed, frustrated or hurt.

I don’t think phubbing is something most people intentionally set out to do to those they care about. That said, most people seem to brush it aside as not a big deal and something we should just get over. Our general acceptance of what was once seen as rude behaviour may be due to a perception that phubbing is the result of people needing to be online to do something important. However, that’s not usually the case. Often people are phubbing others because of something inconsequential. They are playing a game, searching for something, updating their status or texting someone else. Most of the time, it’s something that can wait.

Beyond aggravation and upset, phubbing can have an even more serious impact on someone’s wellbeing, especially those who are not yet adults. There’s been a lot of debate about what technology and devices are doing to children. A study in 2017 attributed the spike in teen mental health issues to the growing amount of time teens spend online. But, there’s another explanation for the increase that seems more likely and is just as concerning. It’s not as much about the time teenagers are online as it is the significant amount of time their parents and caregivers are. This ‘distracted parenting’ leads to less interaction time between parents and teens, as well as a lower quality of interaction. 

The younger the children, the more serious the impact of our technology distraction. Kids are learning early on that parents have trouble focusing on them instead of devices. One study of 1,000 kids between 4 and 18 reported that many of them no longer run to meet their parents when they arrive home because their parents are usually on their phones. One of the results of this digital divide is a decrease in time that families spend together. Another study in the US showed the total hours American families spend together each month dropped almost a third (from 26 to ~18) between 2006 and 2011. With the significant increases in time spent online since then, it’s safe to assume the hours have dropped even more. 

And then there’s the impact of our technology use on those most vulnerable—babies. Researchers have been studying the effects of mothers breastfeeding while using their smartphones. There are obvious issues that can arise from not paying attention, such as missing subtle cues about a baby’s well-being. But even more concerning is the impact on the bonding or neuro-connection between mother and child. A mother’s or father’s gaze is crucial for a baby to feel safe and secure. Technology is increasingly interrupting that vital connection.

The facts are clear. Similar to secondhand smoke, research shows how our activity online activity can harm those around us. We need to be more mindful about when and where we use our devices. Not only do we need to create healthier tech habits for ourselves but also, just as importantly, for those we care about. So, next time you find yourself phubbing someone, ask yourself if what you’re doing is really more important than them. If not, put down your device and give your attention to those around you. We'll all be better for it.

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